Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, listens...

Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, listens to the translation of a journalist's question during a news conference at the IOC headquarters. (April 17, 20010) Credit: AP

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the small, dapper former roller hockey goalie who tamed, charmed or captured the Olympic beasts of politics, professionalism, boycotts and commercialism during his 21 years as International Olympic Committee president, died Wednesday in his native Barcelona. He was 89.

In declining health in recent years, Samaranch nevertheless continued globe trotting to IOC meetings as the organization's still influential president-emeritus since 2001. He was admitted to a Barcelona hospital on Sunday with heart trouble.

"I cannot find the words to express the distress of the Olympic family," current IOC president Jacques Rogge of Belgium said in a statement, calling Samaranch "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."

As head of the IOC from 1980 to 2001, Samaranch increased women's Olympic participation by almost 20 percent, nudged Olympic policy-makers into accepting professional athletes - most notably NBA players in 1992 - pushed for the readmittance of post-apartheid South Africa into the Olympic family and labored to end politically-inspired boycotts.

On his watch, Olympic television rights increased an astounding 500 percent and corporate sponsorship 600 percent, but he was not without his critics. Andrew Jennings, co-author of the 1992 book, "The Lord of the Rings," argued that "corruption became the lubrication of Olympic industry" and that he "fleeced sport of its moral and monetary value."

Revelations of the vote-buying scandal that brought Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Games badly stained Samaranch's reputation, but he reacted with reforms for a more open and democractic process and ultimately was seen as the IOC's most effective leader since Pierre de Coubertin, who created the Modern Games in 1896 and remained president for 29 years.

Born July 17, 1920 in Barcelona, the son of a textile magnate and bank chairman, Samaranch first maneuvered his way into sports prominence as a young man by writing a newspaper column on roller hockey under the pseudonym "Stick" and regularly quoting a previously unknown goalie named Juan Antonio Samaranch.

From there, he became a coach and federation chief of roller hockey - a sport never granted Olympic inclusion - and eventually a member of the IOC. Only 5-foot-5, with slicked-back hair and impeccable business suits, Samaranch was described by Canadian IOC member Richard Pound, who served as his IOC vice president, as "a statesman, and very good at it." John Krimsky, during his years as U.S. Olympic Committee marketing director, called Samaranch "the ultimate diplomat."

Prior to his election as IOC president in 1980, he had walked the halls of power with the likes of oppressive Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (as the highest-ranking official of Spain's Catalan region in the early 1970s) and with Soviet Communist party chief Leonid Brezhnev (as Spain's amabassador to Moscow in the late 1970s).

Samaranch is survived by his son Juan Antonio Jr., himself an IOC member, and daughter Maria Teresa, president of the Spanish sports federation. His wife of 44 years, Maria Teresa, died in 2000.

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