Newsreal: Bigger than the pope

A British investigative reporter who has written about the International Olympic Committee shows how the head of the IOC tries to prove, as he once said, that the IOC is more powerful than the Catholic Church.

By Andrew Jennings
Published February 20, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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NAGANO, Japan -- Olympics boss Juan Antonio Samaranch, who announced two years ago that he and his wealthy organization were "more important than the Catholic church," appears to be proving his point at the Nagano Games.

Samaranch, who circles the globe incessantly in his search for rich corporate sponsors, has probably accumulated more frequent-flier miles than Capt. James T. Kirk. A devout Catholic, he nevertheless makes it a point, when he's on the road, of not traveling the extra mile to church. Instead he summons a local priest to his hotel suite.


Even Japan, a mostly Shinto Buddhist nation (with a congregation of only half a million Catholics), was expected to tend to Samaranch's special needs.

A couple of weeks before the games started, Olympic organizers placed a call to St Joseph's church in the Nishitsuruga-Cho district of Nagano. Would they provide a priest at 9 a.m. sharp at Samaranch's Kokusai Hotel for each of the three Sundays of the Olympics?

"I told them no, I cannot go," the Rev. Otaro Hamada told me. "Here in Nagano prefecture we are one priest short and on Sundays I have to travel to three churches in the region. How can I have time to go to Samaranch's hotel?"


Hamada further explained his predicament. "If a parishioner is sick, I will try and go to him. If he is dying, I will certainly go and hear his confession and give him final communion."

That was apparently not good enough for the Olympics' organizers. "They told me that in Tokyo a priest had been to his room," said Hamada. "I guess they was saying that if it was possible in Tokyo, it should also be in Nagano."

In other countries, Roman Catholic worthies have jumped at the chance to minister to Samaranch's soul in the comfort of his hotel room. Why not Japan? Hamada, 36, slim and boyish in casual cords, explained that a decade ago the Japanese church resolved to be "on the side of the minorities, the oppressed and the poor."


Hamada has found plenty of work recently. Illegal migrant workers, principally from the Catholic Philippines, had come to Nagano to help construct the Olympic facilities. Now that the work is done, they fear deportation. One group lives two hours by train from Nagano and he travels to see them every Sunday.

"They were cheap labor," said Hamada, who says one of his favorite books is George Orwell's Spanish Civil War epic, "Homage to Catalonia." Samaranch is a Catalan who fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and governed the Catalonia district after World War II in brutal fashion. But politics played no role in Hamada's turning down of the IOC summons.


"I cannot ignore my parishioners and the Filipinos for Samaranch, but I invited him to come to our church," he said.

The distance from Samaranch's hotel to St Joseph's church is about a mile. But rather than make the brief journey in his limousine, Samaranch summoned two different priests from Tokyo, more than 700 miles away, to minister to him on his Sundays in the Japanese alps.

One private confession and mass was conducted by the Rev. Isidro Ribas, from a Jesuit university in Tokyo. I asked him why Samaranch preferred not to share a service with the migrant workers who built the ice rinks and the ski slopes.


"He's very busy," explained Ribas.

The suggestion that the Jesuit order was treating Samaranch more deferentially than other Catholics in Japan was dismissed by Ribas as "a misunderstanding." He then disclosed that he had been a school chum of Samaranch's in the 1930s in Barcelona, when the future Olympic president was active in the fascist youth Falange movement.

Two years ago, on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, Samaranch claimed in an HBO documentary that his International Olympic Committee is "more important than the Catholic Church."


After negative commentary in the U.S. press, Samaranch paid a hasty visit to the Catholic bishop's palace in Atlanta and after making private penance, was reported to have dealt the bishop two scarce tickets for the Opening Ceremonies.

Andrew Jennings

Andrew Jennings is a British journalist and the author of "The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals."

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