They say the famous among us die in threes. That certainly is what happened this past week. The grand matriarch of the civil rights movement, Dorothy Height passed away at age 98. Guru, the hip-hop artist of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz fame succumbed at 43 to cancer. Then we heard about the passing of former International Olympic Committee chief, Juan Antonio Samaranch at the age of 89. Apologies to the Guru and Dorothy Height. Your traveling companion to the afterlife will be less than pleasant. But at least you should end up at different destinations.
When appointed head of the IOC in 1980 Samaranch was known as a proud and open fascist. I don’t use the term “fascist” lightly, as some kind of a cheap insult, or for shock value like a frothing tea party activist. I use it simply as a statement of fact. Samaranch was an honest to goodness, dyed in the wool fascista. Born in 1920 to a wealthy factory owner in Barcelona, Samaranch knew with bloody clarity from his youth which side he was on.
When General Francisco Franco’s fascists fought the Spanish Republicans during the 1936 Spanish Civil War, the teenage Juan Antonio was already an active fascist youth organizer and professional strike breaker. Up until the dictator’s death in 1975, Samaranch proclaimed himself “one hundred per cent Francoist.” As a sportsman, Samaranch believed in the ideals of his IOC predecessor Avery Brundage: that the Olympics should aspire to be an orgiastic celebration of nationalism and power. In fact, the grand difference between Brundage and Samaranch was who they would choose as their favorite fascist - with Brundage being more of a Hitler man. But other than that quibble, Samaranch saw Brundage as a kindred spirit.
As journalist Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, Lords of the Rings,
“Samaranch schemed for years to be appointed to the Olympic committee, sending unsolicited letters to its president, Avery Brundage, eulogizing in one of them the American’s ‘intelligence, laboriousness and love for [the] Olympic idea’ and in another promising, ‘I will entirely devote myself to go with your personality and prominent work.’”
Jennings also observed of Samaranch,
“Three decades of devotion to fascism had taught Samaranch a peculiar language. All the institutions in Spain—the monarchy, politics, the church, industry and its workers—were forced into slavish obedience; the dictator and his mouthpieces called it ‘sacred unity.’ This has been one of Samaranch’s contributions to Olympic jargon. He calls frequently for the ‘unity’ of the Olympic movement and hails the ‘sacred unity’ of the committee, the international sports barons and the national Olympic committees around the world; all of course under his leadership.”
This leadership gave Samaranch a sense of self that could kindly be called grandiose. He insisted that he be referenced by his royal appellation of Marquis and be referred to, instead of by name, as “Your Excellency.”
Like Brundage, he had a titanic ego and loved issuing platitudes suitable for fortune cookies. Read today, they are delicious in their irony: for example, “We shall serve sport, not use it. Money generated by sport shall benefit sport.”
But if Samaranch and Brundage were political doppelgangers, the Marquis was miles ahead of his mentor in how to turn the Olympics into a corrupt commercial juggernaut. The IOC under his watch was transformed from Cold War spectacle into a neoliberal Trojan Horse: an invading corporate sledgehammer of privatization and payoffs.
It was under Samaranch that the IOC was embroiled in bribery and corruption scandals, delivering the Summer and Winter games to cities in return for all manner of favors. It was under Samaranch that amateur athletes were pushed out of the games for their professional counterparts. And it was under Samaranch that the process began of forcing cities to bet against each other and undergo profound social displacements and inhuman spending priorities if they wanted the “honor” of hosting the games.
Samaranch’s legacy is not seen, as reports are saying, in the IOC’s financial health or their multi-billion dollar television deals. It’s seen in the bankruptcy and riots in Greece, precipitated by the billions in debt incurred from the 2004 games. It’s seen in the near two million people displaced in Beijing before the 2008 festivities. It’s seen in the protests in Chicago to keep the Olympics out of the Windy City, and the protests this past winter in Vancouver once the Olympics were in. Samaranch’s lasting contribution is taking the beauty of sport and turning the Olympic movement into a sporting shock doctrine of disaster capitalism. He made our cities commercial franchises for his twisted, Francoist version of the Olympic ideal.
At his funeral, his successor Jacque Rogge said, “I pledge in the name of the International Olympic Committee that we shall preserve and perpetuate his legacy and his heritage.” Truer words were never spoken.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]