Sydney is Juan Antonio Samaranch's final Olympics as IOC president
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) -- Juan Antonio Samaranch has overseen the Olympics for 20 years, an era marked by unprecedented success and the biggest scandal in the Games' history.
In Sydney next month, Samaranch will preside over his 10th and final Games as president of the International Olympic Committee. While he will remain in office for another nine months, he is already pointing to the moment his successor will take over in Moscow on July 16, 2001.
"I am conscious that my responsibilities are lasting until next year," Samaranch said. "Until the end, I want to do what I have to do. But maybe today I have the feeling that enough is enough."
Samaranch relaxed recently in his spacious office on the shores of Lake Geneva and, in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, reflected on his career with pride and regret.
"I am very pleased," the 80-year-old Spaniard said. "Until now, all the Games finished in black numbers and even some Games finished with a very important surplus. It will be very special to proclaim the closing of the Games for the last time."
A little over a year ago, as the Salt Lake City scandal unfolded, some people wondered whether Samaranch would be in Sydney at all.
Critics called for him to resign amid revelations that IOC members received cash and lavish gifts and favours from Salt Lake City and other Olympic bid cities.
But Samaranch dug in and IOC delegates rallied around him. Under an investigation led by IOC vice-president Dick Pound of Montreal, 10 IOC members were purged and the organization adopted a series of reforms designed to make it more open and accountable and less susceptible to corruption.
"Before the crisis, it was impossible to convince the members of the IOC to give up some of their privileges and powers," Samaranch said. "But thanks to this crisis, we convinced them it was time for important change."
Samaranch withstood intense scrutiny from American politicians and media, submitted to questioning by U.S. federal investigators and was grilled by lawmakers at a Congressional hearing.
Samaranch said he never considered quitting, citing the unbending support of the IOC executive board and the general assembly, which gave him a 86-2 vote of confidence at the height of the scandal.
"When you have a position like mine as president of the IOC, you have to try to show to the people that you are able to run the IOC in the good times but also in the bad times," he said.
Samaranch is the seventh president of the IOC. When he steps down, he will have served for 21 years, surpassing Avery Brundage, the American who presided for 20 years from 1952 to '72. Only Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics, served longer -- 29 years, from 1896 to 1925.
"There is no question that after de Courbertin, he's the single most important leader in the history of the modern Olympic movement," said John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and Olympic historian.
"He has absolutely transformed the Olympic system worldwide, as much through his political acumen as through his interaction with the corporate sector. He has made the Olympic movement the leading edge of the international sports industry."
Samaranch was elected IOC president during the 1980 Moscow Games, succeeding Ireland's Lord Killanin. The organization was close to bankruptcy, the Olympics were reeling from political boycotts and Los Angeles was the only city interested in staging the '84 Games.
Today, there are 10 cities -- including Toronto -- bidding for the 2008 Summer Games and the IOC manages a huge industry generating more than $3.5 billion US in revenues over a four-year period, with global sponsors paying more than $50 million US to attach their names to the Olympic rings.
Samaranch has also presided over the death of the amateur era, ushering in the age of professionalism and commercialization in the Olympics, leading traditionalists to argue the Games have been poisoned by big money.
Even before the Salt Lake scandal, Samaranch was the target of critics, notably for his ties to the former regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. British author Andrew Jennings dug into Samaranch's past in his 1992 book Lords of the Rings and assails him again in his new book, The Great Olympic Swindle.
Samaranch was a former deputy sports minister and president of Catalonia's provincial government in Barcelona during the Franco era. He later served as democratic Spain's first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Samaranch defends his past record, saying he should be judged by Spaniards. He also says Franco did good things for the country, keeping Spain out of the Second World War and paving the way for the ascension of King Juan Carlos II.
Looking back on his IOC presidency, Samaranch believes he probably should have retired in 1992 after the Summer Olympics in his home city of Barcelona, which he still describes as the "best Games in history." (He lists the 1994 Lillehammer Games as the best winter Games.)
"After Barcelona was the right moment maybe," Samaranch said. "But I convinced myself that it would be exciting to be president of the IOC on the opening of the Centennial Games" in Atlanta in 1996.
Then, in 1997, the IOC raised its age limit to allow Samaranch to serve another four-year term. He now regrets that, too.
"Maybe that was a mistake," Samaranch said. "But it is very easy to say that now. During these last four years, we faced a crisis from Salt Lake City, the most difficult moment of my presidency.
"But also I am very pleased that I took the right decision to stay. I was here in good times, but I also have to show I was able to manage the IOC during the storm."
Samaranch insists he hasn't thought about how the Salt Lake scandal will affect his legacy.
"We will see," he said. "But I would like to repeat: In all the crises, you find a positive side."
Samaranch believes the campaign to succeed him will begin in earnest after the Sydney Games. Several members have expressed interest in running, but the main contenders appear to be Canada's Pound and Belgium's Jacques Rogge.
"I will be very cautious not to interfere," Samaranch said. "All the possible candidates know the IOC very well. Also, they will do what I am doing.
"Many people think I am the boss, I am doing what I want. This is not true. The IOC is run mainly by the executive board. The executive board is our government. Even sometimes there are proposals where I have some opposition. That is normal. I change my mind."
Samaranch said the next president should be based full-time in Lausanne and, for the first time, draw a salary. He said his successor's biggest test will be to maintain unity with the international sports federations.
Despite occasional trembling of the hands and head, Samaranch is exceptionally fit for his age, testament to his stretching and calisthenics each morning.
Samaranch plans to spend retirement in Barcelona, where he still serves as honorary chairman of the Caixa savings bank. His next challenge: writing his memoirs.
"I am keeping many documents and writing from time to time," he said. "But it will not be easy. I have thousands of pages. How do I put that into a book of 300 pages?"