Clare Sambrook recalls the day Juan Antonio Samaranch, the leader of the 'Olympic Movement' who died last month, faced allegations of corruption at a US Congressional hearing.
I happened to be there on Capitol Hill one bright December morning when Juan Antonio Samaranch, who last month died of heart failure, aged 89, had his first and only encounter with democratic scrutiny.
It was 1999. The leader of the ‘Olympic Movement’ had spent the year manoeuvring to save his skin — and the Olympic myth — from financial catastrophe threatened by a well-earned corruption scandal. He had been summoned under threat of subpoena to testify before the Commerce Subcommittee, whose mission was to ‘go after fraud and abuse wherever we find it’.
Waiting in line before the hearing, I caught sight of Samaranch, standing apart, cut off from his entourage, small, old and apprehensive. I felt sorry for him . . . almost.
‘I am not ashamed of what I did in Spain,’ he told the New York Times earlier that year. ‘Franco did good things for my country,’ said the charming and poisonous man whose devoted service as de facto minister of sport in the regime that murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people, propelled him smoothly onwards and upwards into domination of the International Olympic Committee for 21 years.
Throughout his presidency Samaranch tolerated if not encouraged IOC members’ efforts to extract personal gain from their power to decide which cities got to host the Olympic Games.
Bidding cities’ complaints of shakedowns, scams and sexual demands were buried, whistleblowers intimidated. Critical journalists were investigated, harried and sued. Andrew Jennings (my partner) and his co-author Vyv Simson got a 5-day suspended jail sentence for alleging in their 1992 book, The Lords of the Rings, that Samaranch maintained his autocracy through corruption, that he tolerated doping because it helped fuel the record-breaking performances and television ratings that sponsors require.
When Samaranch said, ‘we must constantly expand sport’s capacity to open the minds and hearts of young people,’ he might have added, ‘and open their wallets to buy a Big Mac and Coke.’ He created the myth of the Olympic ‘Movement’ while in effect privatising the Games.
Over Christmas 1998 the shit hit the fan. Box-loads of documents from Salt Lake City’s bid, and then Atlanta’s, spilled out Samaranch’s dirty secrets across the world’s media. Coca Cola, McDonalds, IBM, Kodak, Panasonic, Visa and other global corporations who thought they had hitched their brands to youth, fair play and idealism, found their billion dollar assets shackled to old men soliciting legovers, luxury holidays, knee replacement surgery and college scholarships for their kids.
Fearing a sponsor stampede, Samaranch reluctantly expelled a few dear friends, promised reform and paid millions of dollars to Hill & Knowlton, the ‘reputation’ experts who had defended Union Carbide’s profits from the victims of Bhopal. In a secret dossier that popped through our letterbox one fine day, Hill & Knowlton told Samaranch, ‘This is your Bhopal.’
They called in Henry Kissinger, who had turned freelance since his glory days of carpet-bombing Cambodia, colluding with murderous juntas and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kissinger Associates consulting firm had Coca Cola on its client list. Dr Kissinger joined Samaranch’s hastily convened ‘reform commission’, and came along to lend support on Capitol Hill.
When Samaranch stood up smartly to take the oath, and raised his right hand . . . in my mind his arm shot out, as in the good old days, he clicked his heels, like Dr Strangelove — ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’ . . .
In real life, he rambled back to 1894, explained the IOC’s structure, its legal status under Swiss law . . . in a 25 minute opening statement that revealed only his ploy to bore and waffle his way out of this one.
He had already secured one secret win, a steaming congressional staffer told me. Hill & Knowlton had bombarded the committee with requests for special treatment — a pre-hearing tête-à-tête with the Congressmen, the presidential entourage’s fleet of limousines to drive to a private entrance, a rest period in a private anteroom — all refused.
Then Hill & Knowlton made one big last minute try-on.
Soon after the scandal had broken, American swimming legend John Naber (four Golds and one Silver in Montreal) had led an athletes’ revolt along with Canada’s Mark Tewksbury (swimming Gold in Barcelona) and Australia’s beloved Dawn Fraser, Gold in three successive Games, and the first woman to swim 100 metres freestyle in under a minute. They pledged to reclaim the Games, ‘for the public to whom it belongs.’ Charismatic, convincing and angry, Naber had been due to testify alongside Samaranch that morning. Behind closed doors, and to the fury of staffers, Hill & Knowlton got Naber bumped into the afternoon graveyard session.
Samaranch sat down. When the questions started, in time-limited rounds, every word translated back and forth despite the splendid English his aides used to boast about, Samaranch hit the waffle button. ‘When did you personally become aware that bidding cities were giving excessive inducements and gifts to IOC members?’ asked Congressman Fred Upton. Samaranch took a leisurely stroll through the history of the Los Angeles Games, its financial success, the good works it funded . . . smiling benignly as the interpreter slogged his way through the morass.
‘Mr Samaranch, as you see the red light goes on really fast in this committee and I would appreciate short answers if possible,’ said seething Congresswoman Diana Degette from Colorado. ‘Right?’
‘Right,’ said Samaranch with a cheeky smile.
California’s Henry Waxman challenged Samaranch on two humungous conflicts of interest (first revealed in Andrew Jennings’s 1996 book, The New Lords of the Rings). Without inviting any competing bids, Samaranch’s IOC granted the NBC television company a contract to broadcast five Olympics in a row. One IOC seat was held at the time by an NBC executive. Shortly afterwards, NBC made a $1 million donation to Samaranch's self-aggrandising Olympic Museum in Lausanne. ‘I have to tell you that looks to me like a quid pro quo,’ said Waxman.
‘But even more incredibly,’ he said, ‘a Japanese company gave a $20 million contribution to that museum at the same time as the IOC was considering whether to award the 1988 to Nagano Japan! I'd like you to respond to these allegations.’
Had Waxman’s meaning got lost in translation? ‘We are very happy with the NBC contract,’ said Samaranch. ‘They have been with us for a long a time now.’ Waxman darkened, he took a slow breath. And so it went on, until Samaranch had consumed two hours of congressional time that left nobody any wiser.
Henry Kissinger, smaller and baggier than in his heyday, but still exuding an aura of power-celebrity, spoke of his ‘enormous confidence’ in Samaranch’s ‘meticulous adherence to the letter and the spirit of reform’. At the end of the day, Hill & Knowlton's Gary Hymel strolled over to Upton's counsel, Jan Faiks, and gloated, ‘that was just a great hearing.’ Faiks growled back: ‘You won one on me Gary and I am never going to forget it.’
When Samaranch’s testimony was over he stood and turned to Kissinger who gripped him by the arm and pulled him close. It was an unsettling moment, the Jew who had escaped the Nazi holocaust embracing the fascist whose regime had kept Hitler's Wehrmacht in supplies and smart grey uniforms, two old men united in the service of the ‘Movement’, McDonalds and the Coca Cola company.