The Man Who Saved the Olympics

Juan Antonio Samaranch – the renowned President of the IOC, died yesterday at the age of 89.

No individual has had a great impact on the modern sports movement than Samaranch.

I had the special honour and privilege to serve this visionary leader for more than 18 years, as the IOC Marketing and Broadcast Rights Director, from 1983 to his retirement in 2001.

Samaranch took over the IOC in 1980, following the US led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. At the time, the IOC was bankrupt; no city wanted to come forward to host the Games; there were no real sources of revenue and the Olympic Games were becoming a political pawn between the super powers with a series of retaliatory boycotts.

Most commentators at the time were writing the obituary of the Olympics – saying that they had become too political, too costly and too out of touch to survive. So great did the problems look, that Samaranch himself was pessimistic about the future and within weeks of taking on the presidency thought about resigning,.

When Samaranch retired in 2001, as the second longest serving IOC President after the founder, Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC was generating $ billions from broadcasting and sponsorship revenues, allowing the IOC to properly fund the Games and support all the National Olympic Committees and Sports Federations around the world. Cities were queuing up for the privilege of hosting the Games, and the term boycott had been banished from the Olympic lexicon.

Samaranch’s leadership – patient, long term and strategic - was fundamental to saving the Games. He seized the agenda. Instead of being constantly on the back foot, he looked to the future and the IOC began to dictate terms. He offered a clear vision; wanting to modernise the Games while remaining true to the Olympic ideal; commercialising them without compromising the principles of the Movement. The standing joke was that Samaranch had the strategic skills to play chess in three dimensions.

Yet, he was not afraid to act quickly and decisively when the situation called for it. Following the Salt Lake bidding scandal in 1999, which came close to bringing down the IOC, Samaranch drove through a series of reforms in just six months, which, under any normal circumstances, would have taken decades to achieve.

He was a great listener and a man of few, carefully chosen, words. His attention to detail was remarkable. It was Samaranch who suggested that the International Table Tennis Federation change its ball from white to yellow to enhance television coverage. He also suggested that the Olympic rings be embedded in the bobsleigh track to emphasise the Olympic brand. Indeed, he understood the principles of Sports Marketing long before they were defined!

In order to eradicate the cancer of Olympic boycotts, Samaranch spent much of the first decade of his presidency engaging with political leaders around the world. He walked the corridors of power, political and corporate, quietly –so as to create support for a strong and united Olympic Movement.

Outside of the IOC, especially within sections of the Anglo Saxon media and the US Government, Samaranch was often misunderstood. The unity he forged in the Olympic Movement led some to accuse him of being dictatorial. Nothing could be further from the truth. He led from the front, but his style was to create consensus by shrewd persuasion and debate. Although he had a major presence on the world stage, he lived a simple life and had only one vice – an abiding passion for sport.

He focused far more on quiet, long term diplomacy and steady discreet action, than on a pro-active high profile communications and public relations programme. Only after his retirement, when the full legacy of his long term strategy became apparent, did people begin to understand and appreciate his genius.

The world owes a great debt of gratitude to the man – for single-handedly saving one of the greatest institutions of modern times. He took over the Olympics at a time of bankruptcy and led perhaps the most important turnaround of all time. His passing is the end of an era.

Michael Payne.

Michael Payne worked closely with President Samaranch, from 1983 to 2001 – as IOC Marketing / Broadcast Director 1988 – 2004.

Author of Olympic Turnaround, published London Business Press 2005, which details the business evolution of the Olympic Movement under President Samaranch.

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