IOC president tries to escape his fascist past

July 25, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Juan Antonio Samaranch is the most powerful man in sports. He brings warring nations together, keeps crumbling empires intact, and communicates with an array of leaders from Fidel Castro to Boris Yeltsin.

He even brings the 1992 Summer Olympics here to his hometown.

But Samaranch can't escape the past.

Today, the 72-year-old president of the International Olympic Committee, should be basking in the glow of the Olympic flame during opening ceremonies. Instead, he is shadowed by controversy surrounding his links to the fascist regime of Spanish Gen. Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

Samaranch was once quoted as saying, "I am a Francoist 100 percent." The soft-spoken diplomat who switches languages seamlessly from Catalan to Spanish to French to English, once wore the blue shirt of the fascists.

Yesterday, Samaranch showed up for his state of the Games news conference where there was an undercurrent of tension. Ever since the publication of "The Lords of the Rings," a book by two British journalists, Samaranch has been on the defensive, refusing in-depth interviews. The IOC has even instituted libel proceedings against the authors.

"I can be proud of my past, you can be sure," Samaranch said, a remark that cut off all personal questions.

Still, in a country testing the opportunities and limits of democracy 17 years after the end of military rule, the past is never far beneath the surface of daily life. Franco left a mark on Barcelona, the last holdout city to his rule. Several minutes walk from the Olympic Stadium atop Montjuic stands a military prison, once used for tortures and executions of Franco's dissidents.

But among some there is a feeling that forgiveness must be matched by remembrance.

"I think Mr. Samaranch's political evolution has been superb," said Barcelona's mayor, Pasqual Maragall. "He has adopted to a new situation. His adaptation to democracy is outstanding. In this country, we value people in terms of their present and future, not their past."

Samaranch's past, after all, is not uncommon. Other sons of other prominent Catalan families made accommodations to the Franco regime.

Samaranch's alliance with fascism gave him a career in politics and sports. In one arena, his climb was stopped by Franco's death. But in the other, he kept rising, beginning as a roller hockey goalie, reaching the IOC, eventually shepherding Spain through the thicket of a U.S.-led boycott to an appearance at the 1980 Moscow Games.

He was rewarded with the IOC presidency. On Thursday, he announced he would run for another four-year term, and was greeted with a standing ovation by the other IOC members.

"I'd call him more of a statesman than a politician," said Richard Pound, an IOC board member from Canada.

It was Samaranch who helped pave the way for professionals to compete in the Games. He also opened the Olympics to corporate sponsorships. When he took over the movement, the IOC had assets worth $2,008,185. Today, those assets have risen to $105,045,685.

When it comes to cash, once a taboo subject in the Olympics, Samaranch is a realist. Asked how he would feel if an athlete received a $25 million appearance fee for participating in the Games, Samaranch said: "Well, I'd be happy to see how important the Olympic Games are. Things have changed a great tTC deal. The world has moved on. Happily, it's now possible for the IOC to move the same way the world has moved."

But the Olympics haven't gained merely money. They have taken on added clout. Erased is the memory of back-to-back boycotts, replaced by the Games that feature a united Germany, a transforming South Africa, a glued-together squad of some former Soviet republics called the Unified Team.

"He cares about athletes," said Anita DeFrantz, recently elected as a U.S. representative to the IOC board. "He cares about small nations. I didn't fully appreciate the notion of a follower of Franco. I don't care that he had a blue shirt on at one time. He is an individual who has with determination and strength made sure the Olympic movement has prospered and will continue to prosper for centuries to come."

The man who once embraced fascism now extols the spirit of the Olympics. Sports give Samaranch power. But the past may yet threaten his reign as the ruling lord of all the rings.

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