BARCELONA (Reuters) - Juan Antonio Samaranch, who steered the Olympic movement through two turbulent decades marked by political boycotts, bribery and drug scandals plus a greater emphasis on commercialism, has died at the age of 89.
Appointed honorary life president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when he stepped down as president in 2001, Samaranch was admitted to the Quiron clinic in his native Barcelona on Sunday with acute heart problems and passed away at 1325 local time (1125 GMT) on Wednesday.
He had died as a result of “cardio-respiratory failure” hospital doctor Rafael Esteban said in a statement.
“I cannot find the words to express the distress of the Olympic Family,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said.
“We have lost a great man, a mentor and a friend who dedicated his long and fulfilled life to the Olympics.”
Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe, now chairman of the 2012 London Olympics organizing committee, said he had lost a friend and the world has lost an inspirational man.
“A man that challenged us all to fight for sport, its primacy and its autonomy, a fight he led fearlessly from the front creating an extraordinary sporting movement that reaches millions of people around the world,” Coe said.
“He was quite simply the most intuitive leader I have ever met.”
Once one of the most powerful figures in world sport, who wielded influence on the Olympic movement right up until his death, Samaranch had suffered a number of health problems since his retirement and was admitted to hospital several times.
He ran the IOC with absolute authority for two decades and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, which transformed the Catalan port city, were seen as his personal triumph.
His supporters believe he showed political skill in a difficult period -- a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics followed by an eastern-bloc retaliation in 1984 at Los Angeles -- to lead the Games into the era of professional sport and turn it into a huge money-spinner.
His critics argue that many of the original values of the movement were obscured in the search for commercial success, leading to high-profile bribery and drugs scandals.
He stepped down in July 2001, 21 years after he had been elected as the IOC’s seventh president, and was made life president when he handed power to Rogge.
“I am personally deeply saddened by the death of the man who built up the Olympic Games of the modern era, a man who inspired me, and whose knowledge of sport was truly exceptional,” Rogge said in a statement.
”Thanks to his extraordinary vision and talent, Samaranch was the architect of a strong and unified Olympic Movement.
“I can only pay tribute to his tremendous achievements and legacy, and praise his genuine devotion to the Olympic Movement and its values.”
At last October’s vote in Copenhagen on the host for the 2016 Games, Samaranch made an emotional appeal to IOC members to grant him a last favor and choose Madrid but they picked Rio de Janeiro instead.
“I know that I am very near the end of my time,” Samaranch said during Madrid’s final presentation.
Born on July 17 1920, Samaranch enjoyed success as a roller skater and led the Spanish team to the world title.
He pursued a career in sports politics in dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain and won a place on the IOC in 1966.
After Franco’s death, he was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union and the contacts he made there helped him succeed Lord Killanin as IOC president in 1980.
His body will lie at rest in the chapel at the Catalan regional government palace for members of the public to pay their respects between 1000 and 1500 GMT on Thursday.
His coffin will then be carried on the shoulders of a group of athletes to the funeral at the nearby city cathedral.
“He made the IOC strong, financially strong,” former committee vice president Lambis Nikolaou, who has been a member since 1986, told Reuters.
“He planned its expansion and was responsible for this unprecedented growth of the movement,” he added.
“The last time I saw him was in Vancouver and his assistant told me Samaranch wanted to leave after the Games were over to go on a long trip to China or somewhere far away. That was Samaranch. He was just unstoppable.”
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann in Berlin, John Mehaffey in London and Inmaculada Sanz in Madrid; editing by Ken Ferris