BARCELONA, Spain — A host of international figures and dignitaries paid tribute to former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch on Thursday at the funeral service for the man who changed the face of the Olympics.
Tennis star Rafael Nadal was one of the pallbearers who helped carry Samaranch’s coffin, draped in the Olympic flag, from Catalonia state headquarters to Barcelona’s cathedral, where a service attended by around 300 people paid final homage to the 89-year-old Spaniard, who died on Wednesday from heart failure.
During his 21 years in power, Samaranch transformed the nearly bankrupt IOC, in the process turning the Olympics into a thriving, multi-billion-dollar industry that cities around the world compete to host.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said earlier in a private ceremony attended by about 100 people that Samaranch made the Olympics “the premier sporting event in the world.”
“We’ve come from the four corners of the world to say farewell to an old friend and great man,” Rogge said. “Juan Antonio Samaranch was the most influential president after our founder Pierre de Coubertin.”
Rogge was among a number of international figures who joined Samaranch’s son Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., daughter Maria Teresa, partner Luisa Sallent and other family members — including all seven grandchildren — to honour a “generous, compassionate man.”
Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, and Prince Albert of Monaco were among the state leaders in attendance at the cathedral, while Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Raul Castro paid their respects through one of the growing number of flower arrangements that arrived.
Crown Prince Felipe called Samaranch a “colossal figure” in Spanish sports and a “universal” figure in world sports.
“Behind a great man there is a rich personality. He was a man of few words but each of these words would resonate loudly and were always meaningful,” said Rogge, who succeeded Samaranch in 2001. “He has left a great legacy. And I pledge in the name of the International Olympic Committee that we shall preserve and perpetuate his legacy and his heritage.
“On behalf of the Olympic movement I would like to express my warm condolences to the family — you have lost a beloved father and grandfather; Spain has lost an illustrious son; the Olympic movement has lost a leader, a mentor and a friend.”
Men and women of all ages streamed into the state headquarters’ Salon Sant Jordi room in the afternoon to pay their respects, many bringing flowers. Manuel Rodriguez was the first member of the public to get close to Samaranch’s coffin.
“He’s loved by all. Not just by Barcelona but all of the world,” said Rodriguez, who is 87. “The city changed very, very much because of him.”
The volcanic ash that disrupted air travel left 22-year-old Chinese student Mao Yunfei stranded in the Catalan capital but with the chance to pay her respects. She said Samaranch was loved in China for bringing the Games to Beijing in 2008.
“In our heart he is a hero,” Mao said. “His spirit, you can still feel it. There’s an old saying in Chinese — if you die, you shall live in people’s hearts.”
Nadal was among 30 Olympic athletes who alternated in carrying Samaranch’s coffin down the Carrer del Bisbe street to the cathedral, including former tennis players Manolo Santana and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Olympic water polo champion Manel Estiarte.
Earlier, IAAF president Lamine Diack, IOC vice-president Tomas Bach, two-time Olympic champion Sebastian Coe, Olympic champion Rosa Mota and Barcelona soccer president Joan Laporta were among those who attended the private ceremony.
“Merci pour tous,” Rogge wrote in French in the book of condolences — meaning “Thanks for everything.”
Before the start of Samaranch’s time at the helm of the Olympic body, the IOC was nearly bankrupt, the Olympics were battered by boycotts, terrorism and financial troubles, and no cities wanted to host the Games.
Samaranch changed all that when he came into office in 1980. His mastery of negotiation, persuasion and behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped do away with political boycotts and amateurism and bring in an explosion of commercialization that helped grow the popularity of the Games.
“He had the wisdom to modify and change the IOC itself and make it a modern, transparent, representative and financially independent organization,” Rogge said.
Samaranch created the Court of Arbitration for Sport, took over a male-dominated IOC that now has 20 women among its 100-plus delegates and brought more female athletes into the Olympics.
“Many years will have to pass before we can know the authentic scope of his work,” Spanish Olympic Committee president Jose Alejandro Blanco said.
Even the scourge of doping, the Salt Lake City corruption scandal and Samaranch’s ties to Spain’s Franco era were forgotten on this day.
The morning’s private ceremony closed with the crowd standing after listening to “Amigos para Siempre” (Friends For Life) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was played throughout the 1992 Games that Samaranch brought to Barcelona.
Maria Teresa, Samaranch’s daughter, said it was one of her father’s favourite songs while city mayor Jordi Hereu said Samaranch “will always be in the heart of this city.”
“He was happy to defend the values of sport,” Maria Teresa said. “Sport always was and will always be representative in our lives. That always made him happy and it makes us happy, too.”