Supporter of women in sport

Supporter of women in sport

Late Juan Antonio Samaranch altered the men-only, conservative image of IOC

Supporter of women in sport

 But to some, his successes as president of the International Olympic Committee far outweighed his failures, especially regarding one issue that remained dear to him: promoting women in sports.

“It's one of his greatest legacies,” Jacques Rogge, the current IOC president, said Wednesday in a teleconference. “People tend to forget that in 1980, when Samaranch was elected, that the IOC was a very conservative, men-only club.”
When Samaranch, who died Wednesday of heart failure in Barcelona, Spain, took charge of the IOC, there was not one woman in the organization. And at that time, in 1980, only 18 percent of the athletes at the Olympics were women, Rogge said. But Samaranch, who ruled the IOC until 2001, made it a priority to change the status quo, pushing for women's inclusion in Olympic sports -- at all levels.
As president, he quickly ushered two women into the male-rich IOC membership. Now 20 of the 115 active members of the IOC are women. "Still not enough," Rogge said, “but you could see the change in 20 years' time.”

At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, more than 40 percent of the Olympians were women. But to Samaranch, according to people that worked with him, that was not enough.

Anita DeFrantz, a 1976 Olympian for the United States and one of the first female IOC members, said that she spoke to the 89-year-old Samaranch last Friday and that they discussed continued efforts to increase women's participation in the Games. In 1995, Samaranch appointed DeFrantz chairwoman of what would become the IOC's Women and Sport Commission, a group he created to study ways to increase women's involvement in sports.
“He couldn't live without having women be a significant part of the world of sport," DeFrantz said, adding that Samaranch often called her to check in. "He said: 'We need more ideas, we need more women. We have to use that vast, untapped resource.' He understood that there shouldn't be a boundary for women."
On Friday, DeFrantz said, the two talked about her failed efforts to have the IOC include women's ski jumping and women's Nordic combined in the Winter Games. The 2010 Vancouver Games went on without women competing in either of those sports.
"He lamented the fact that the women's project didn't succeed," she said. "I said, 'I hope we can get everything solved,' and he said, 'Yes, get that done.' "
She added, "If he was president, I'm sure that those sports would have been included."

Under Samaranch, women competed in Olympic marathon, softball and soccer for the first time. Women's soccer and softball made their Olympic debuts in 1996, with the United States winning both of those events. That caused a surge of interest in women's sports in this country.

"He played a big part in all of the great things that happened in women's sports at those Games," said Michele Smith, a pitcher on the United States' gold-medal-winning team in 1996. "A generation of young girls were inspired to play sports because he had an open mind. Not too long ago, 20, 30 years ago, there were a lot of men in leadership that didn't take the bull by the horns and didn't see the need for equality. But he did, and he needs to have some recognition for that."
Samaranch continued to champion women's sports, even after stepping down as IOC president in 2001. After softball was dropped from the Olympics in 2005, he lent his support and his name to the effort to reinstate it.

He was honorary chairman of the International Softball Federation's task force that worked to convince the IOC that softball belonged in the Summer Games. The final Olympic softball games, at least for now, were played at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Donna de Varona, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and former president of the Women's Sports Foundation, worked with Samaranch on that task force. She called his efforts there -- and the efforts throughout his lifetime -- "monumental" in helping promote women athletes. She said it was a pity that some people might remember Samaranch for the scandals in the IOC that occurred under his watch, and not for his substantial work to bring equality, including gender equality, to the Olympics. “In the U.S. press, he got the drug issues and the money-for-votes issues, and maybe he should've left earlier, so his legacy wouldn't be tarnished," de Varona said. "Things went wrong, but so many things went right. He wasn't perfect, but he was a true visionary. He always wanted to know how we could be more inclusive and how to include more women, more minorities, more developing countries. He knew how to adapt with the times.”