Salt Lake's Olympics organizers look back at Samaranch legacy

Published: Wednesday, April 21 2010 9:23 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — More than a year before the scandal surrounding the 2002 Winter Games surfaced, then-International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch toured the University of Utah.

Back in April 1997, Samaranch, who died Wednesday in a Barcelona hospital at 89, was at the height of his power as he silently swept past reporters shouting questions on his way to a private lunch on campus with local dignitaries.

An extensive tour of Rice-Eccles Stadium had been scheduled, but the weather was bad that day so Samaranch instead spent only a few minutes examining a scale model before leaving to be honored at the meal behind closed doors.

By end of 1998, however, the leader who preferred to be addressed as "your excellency" was dealing with allegations that Salt Lake City bidders had lavished more than $1 million in cash, gifts, scholarships and other inducements on IOC members.

Samaranch ended his 21-year reign at the IOC in 2001, having overseen the ouster of 10 members of the Switzerland-based organization and the reorganization of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee as a result of the scandal.

Mitt Romney, who took over as head of the Salt Lake Games and later used that experience to launch an unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination, credited Samaranch with helping make the event a success.

"When sponsors were wavering and voices called for Salt Lake to relinquish the Games, President Samaranch stood by us, restructured our financial obligations and helped us along a path of recovery and restoration," Romney said.

Samaranch's support, Romney said, came "at the most critical hour" and was rewarded with an Olympics that inspired the world.

"Those of us who came to know him will miss him, and we will remember with deep appreciation his contribution," Romney said.

Tom Welch, the longtime Utah Olympic leader who was acquitted on federal charges in connection with the scandal, counted Samaranch as a friend.

"He's aloof, but he had both a warm side and a sense of humor," Welch said. "I just saw a different side of him."

At their first meeting, though, Welch said he felt dismissed. Samaranch, still smarting from Denver's decision to pull out of hosting the 1976 Winter Games, wanted nothing to do with another American bid city. But Welch said he managed to win over the former Spanish diplomat with a special gift, a collection of Frank Sinatra's movies.

"We found out he and his wife liked Frank Sinatra," Welch said. "He was really surprised. … He smiled. With him, that was a lot."

Welch said such gifts were simply a matter of protocol, and he doesn't blame Samaranch for creating the culture of entitlement that led to the scandal. But others aren't so sure.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Samaranch ran the IOC "largely like a personal fiefdom" and ignored how competitive the bidding process had become.

"Members of the IOC were saying, these cities want the Games, they want my vote, I can negotiate something there," Burbank said. "They could do that because there wasn't any effective oversight."

The professor, who helped write a 2001 book, "Olympic Dreams: The Impact of Mega Events on Local Politics," said most Utahns — and most Americans — won't remember Samaranch fondly.

"He had this rather arrogant, rather elitist image," Burbank said. "For Samaranch, public opinion literally meant nothing."

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