For better or worse, Juan Antonio Samaranch led the Olympic movement from a period of turmoil into the corporate, multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today. The former IOC chairman died Wednesday at 89, leaving behind a legacy equal parts prosperous and controversial.
Samaranch guided the Olympics through a treacherous stretch in the 1980s and 1990s in which sports either rose to meteoric popularity (NFL, NBA, MLB) or lost its grip on the public consciousness (boxing, horse racing, NHL). It's easy to take for granted the success of the Games, but its standing as the world's premiere sporting event was greatly in doubt when Samaranch took over in 1980
Political boycotts in 1976, 1980 and 1984 threatened to derail the Games. With little money and the Olympics being used as Cold War leverage, it wouldn't have been inconceivable for the Summer Games to dissolve into irrelevance. Instead, Samaranch shored up political support for the quadrennial event, opened the doors to athletes from all nations, oversaw the negotiations of massive television deals and helped bring the Games to both his home city of Barcelona and to the nation of China for the first time.
His methods were often unscrupulous though. Under his watch the Games became known for crass commercialization, corruption and scandal, most notably during the bidding for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He capitulated to East Germany in the '80s, turned a blind eye to doping and appointed unsavory characters like Idi Amin's defense chief to IOC posts.
Those actions were defended by Samaranch as a sort of necessary evil, but detractors were pleased when he stepped down in 2001 and saw that as the only way for the IOC to move past the scandals of the previous two decades.
He was the second-longest serving IOC President ever. Only Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin led the movement for longer. And, arguably, no man besides de Coubertin ever did more for the Olympics than Juan Antonio Samaranch.