Samaranch’s glossy memoirs

In his autobiography «Memorias Olympicas,» published in Greek by Kastaniotis as «21 Years at the Presidency of the International Olympic Committee,» former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch tells us that he went to his first Olympics, in 1952 at Helsinki, as a reporter for the journal La Prensa, whose chief editor, Antonio Sanchez, later founded the glossy magazine Hola! which specialized in non-controversial stories about the titled and the very rich, in that order. That magazine’s success later spawned a British edition, Hello!, which has been equally successful. Samaranch’s memoir is ideal Hola! – or Hello! – material. Glossy inside and out, with plenty of pictures, it tells a glossed-over story in which controversy is inserted in doses mild enough to keep the reader’s interest going, but never – God forbid! – strong enough to cause ripples. That would be bad manners. This method permits one to gloss over, or neglect, unpleasant episodes, for example, Samaranch’s sojourn as Franco’s appointee as president of the Regional Council of Catalonia. Catalans – Samaranch himself is a Catalan, born in Barcelona in 1920 – were ruthlessly suppressed by the Franco regime, even for speaking their language. Samaranch, of course, prefers to gloss over that period, employing a little sleight of hand: «In 1975, I was president of the Regional Council of Catalonia, a post I was awarded in 1973 and to which I was elected in the year General Franco died…,» he says. And unless there is an error in translation somewhere, this rather confused passage implies that Samaranch was head of Catalonia in a transitional period, whereas he was appointed by Franco, who was very much in charge in 1973. Furthermore, he says: «My presence (on the council) appeared to upset some,» a very euphemistic way of referring to the mass demonstrations in Barcelona after Franco’s death calling on him to resign. But, never mind: Samaranch, as befitting a man of his cunning and a general tendency among Spaniards, at that time, to let bygones be bygones, had «initiated contact with Josep Tarradellas,» the exiled head of the Catalan nationalists. There is a photo of the two embracing. The same tendency to avoid painful subjects or behind-the-scenes insights continues in Samaranch’s descriptions of Olympic activities and IOC affairs. For example, he never mentions the furor over the appointment of Mario Vazquez Rania, a Mexican businessman, as an IOC member in 1991. Such was the opposition to Vazquez Rania, dogged by allegations of corruption, that only 12 IOC members voted to induct him, while the others abstained. He does mention somewhere, however, a trip to Africa in the early 1980s on Vazquez Rania’s private plane. Samaranch also gives us too brief a description of the IOC’s «worst crisis,» as he himself admits, the Salt Lake City bribes scandal that erupted in 1998. The names of the 10 IOC members who eventually resigned or were sanctioned are mentioned but not the circumstances leading up to their resignation. Apparently, it is bad manners in Samaranch’s refined circles to speak aloud of such matters. Innuendo is permissible, though. Samaranch – clearly at loggerheads with what he calls «the Anglo-Saxon press,» its brashness and irreverence – somewhere drops a line accusing fellow IOC member Marc Holder, one of the two members older than Samaranch himself, of being the one who leaked the Salt Lake City affair to the papers. In short, one must take the self-laudatory parts or, especially, the platitudes about the IOC’s successes, with a pinch of salt. When reading about the IOC’s «concern for the environment,» the uninformed would never know that among the IOC’s members and, apparently, one of Samaranch’s favorites is Mr «Bob» Hassan of Indonesia, who has made his fortune logging his country’s forests to depletion. (Mr Hassan has now been suspended from the IOC because the present Indonesian government has accused him of massive swindling and tax evasion under the deposed dictator Suharto). For all his (justified) boast that he opened up the Olympics to all the countries in the world, Samaranch shows little desire to mingle with the hoi polloi. A phrase taken from the diary he kept during the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, is telling: «The athletes are behaving very well. It is obvious that, in the Winter Olympics, the most developed countries in the world take part.» Samaranch, anointed by King Juan Carlos as the Marqués de Samaranch in 2000, very much enjoys the company of the titled, including the unemployed Constantine the ex-king of the Hellenes (who hadn’t yet got part of the family fortune back). This is obvious throughout: Only the very rich and very famous can compete with the aristocracy, although they come a distinct second. Samaranch is definitely not the man to be slapped on the back and called «Juanito,» as former sports minister and the current New Democracy spokesperson for sports Fani Palli-Petralia ought to know. She did this back when Greece was competing to stage the 1996 Olympics. Does it follow from the above that this book is boring or should be read only by those aching to get a glimpse of the lifestyles of the aristocracy and the wealthy? Hardly. But it should make clear what the limitations of this book are. Samaranch has a story to tell. But for the lack of introspection or the burying of the unpleasant facts, it is a grand story. Here, after all, is one of the great international administrators of the past century who took a small operation, as the IOC was in 1980, and expanded it many times over. This did not happen accidentally; it was a project that, though Samaranch was not the one to conceive it, he followed through consistently. Much better than his parochial predecessors, he realized that the product he had in his hands had enormous marketing potential. He is frank about that, as he is about his contempt for the notion of amateur sportsmen. The Greek edition, the first translation from the Spanish original, has an extra chapter in which Samaranch also says why, in his opinion, Greece lost the 1996 Olympics. the book is prefaced by Athens Olympics chief organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, King Juan Carlos of Spain, IOC President Jacques Rogge and executive member Denis Oswald, who reveals in his unashamedly laudatory speech his talents as a courtier.

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