Lord Killanin:the Renaissance man of the Olympic movement

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), Volume 20

Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee (1972–80), at a press conference in the Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin, 29 May 1980. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee (1972–80), at a press conference in the Berkeley Court Hotel, Dublin, 29 May 1980. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Lord Killanin was named president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) in 1950, and in 1952 was asked to join the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1965 he was named the IOC chef de protocol and chairman of the press commission, a natural role for the former journalist. In 1967 he was named to the executive board as the third vice-president of the IOC. In 1970 he was named first vice-president, serving under IOC president Avery Brundage.

South Africa and apartheid in sport

In September 1967 Lord Killanin received probably his most important commission from the IOC when he was asked to lead a three-man delegation to South Africa and to report on whether there had been progress in eliminating apartheid in sport. At first he resisted, since he was a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Society, but he was told that it was not a barrier, and he resigned from that organisation for the appearance of neutrality on the matter. He was accompanied by Reginald Alexander of Kenya and Sir Adetokunbo Ademola of Nigeria.

Avery Brundage—with the autocratic reign of Brundage continuing too long in the eyes of some IOC members, Killanin was pressured in 1968 to run against the incumbent president but demurred.

Avery Brundage—with the autocratic reign of Brundage continuing too long in the eyes of some IOC members, Killanin was pressured in 1968 to run against the incumbent president but demurred.

The commission later noted that ‘. . . the [South African] government was strong and determined in its policy of separate development and, where necessary, imposed restrictions in sport by the applications of its laws. We found that the South African NOC had made serious, though unavailing, representations to the South African Government, but the NOC took the view that it could not operate in open defiance of the policy of its government.’
Their negative opinion was confirmed when Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and Lord Killanin sat together on a bench, only to be approached by a South African policeman who told them that blacks and whites could not share the same bench.With the autocratic reign of Brundage continuing too long in the eyes of some IOC members, Lord Killanin was pressured in 1968 to run against the incumbent president but demurred. His refusal was based on his status; he argued that he was not a wealthy man, like Brundage and all previous IOC presidents, and could not afford such a position. Nevertheless, in 1972 Killanin was elected president, but only after insisting that he would need to have his expenses paid. He ran the IOC out of his home in Dublin, with a phone, telefax and a secretary, all paid for by the IOC, and he was also greatly aided by Monique Berlioux, who had been appointed IOC director in 1971 and would serve throughout Killanin’s term, basically running the day-to-day operations of the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, its headquarters.

The Munich massacre of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches—Killanin began his tenure as president of the IOC six days later. (The Sun, Wednesday 5 September 1972)

The Munich massacre of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches—Killanin began his tenure as president of the IOC six days later. (The Sun, Wednesday 5 September 1972)

Multiple political and sporting controversies

Lord Killanin began his tenure as president six days after the worst tragedy in Olympic history, the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics. During his time in office he would be confronted with multiple political and sporting controversies. Some he resolved, some he did not, but he left the office a kinder and gentler one, softening the image of the IOC after so many years of Brundage’s dictatorial rule.Shortly after taking office, Lord Killanin was surprised to learn that the citizens of Denver were abrogating their responsibilities as hosts of the 1976 Olympic Winter Games—Denver officially withdrew as hosts on 12 November 1972, after a citizens’ referendum had voted down holding the games, fearing its negative impact on the environment. With less than three years to go, he was fortunate in finding several capable candidate cities, and Innsbruck, Austria, ably hosted the 1976 Winter Olympics.Killanin was also confronted during the early years with the problems of the other 1976 host city, Montreal. Cost overruns and demands by construction workers left the Canadian city close to being unable to finish the necessary facilities in time for the Olympics. It was never known at the time, but Killanin and several of his IOC colleagues had met in an airport hotel in Amsterdam in 1975 and secretly made plans for an alternative site to be ready on an emergency basis if needed. Killanin later noted in his autobiography that his plan was to hold most of the events, if necessary, in northern Germany, where many athletics stadia were already built and available.Killanin’s problems in Montreal worsened on the eve of the games when the African nations announced a boycott in protest at a recent New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa. Although rugby was no longer an Olympic sport and the IOC had no control over it, the African nations were adamant and eventually 22 of them boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games, despite Killanin’s diplomatic efforts. (It was ironic that a boycott over South Africa occurred in Killanin’s reign, after he had chaired the 1967 South African commission and had fought diligently to keep South Africa out of the Olympic movement until it ended the practice of apartheid in sport.)

The bronze bust of Lord Killanin commissioned by the Irish Olympians’ Association, headed by Ronnie Delany (left), and unveiled by OCI president Pat Hickey (right) in the front garden of the OCI’s headquarters at Harbour Road, Howth, on 20 May 2009. (Sportsfile)

The bronze bust of Lord Killanin commissioned by the Irish Olympians’ Association, headed by Ronnie Delany (left), and unveiled by OCI president Pat Hickey (right) in the front garden of the OCI’s headquarters at Harbour Road, Howth, on 20 May 2009. (Sportsfile)

Resolution of the ‘two Chinas’ problem

Africa was not the only political fiasco that Killanin faced in Montreal. The Canadian government, in complete violation of the Olympic charter, refused to allow Taiwan (now known to the IOC as ‘Chinese Taipei’) to compete under the name ‘Republic of China’, as Canada recognised mainland China by that name, and not the island nation. Killanin was not able to get the Canadians to capitulate and eventually the Taiwanese Olympic team was not allowed into Canada. The United States threatened a boycott if Taiwan was not allowed to compete, but nothing came of this, or other additional boycott threats.Killanin’s major accomplishment as president, however, was the resolution of the Chinese problem. During the next few years he worked furiously to ensure that the Montreal situation would not be repeated and that both Chinas could compete at the Olympic Games. He formed a three-member IOC committee that visited China, led by New Zealander Lance Cross. Cross reported to the IOC at its 81st session in Montevideo in April 1979, and the following recommendation was made:
‘In the Olympic spirit, and in accordance with the Olympic Charter, the IOC resolves: 1) to recognise the Chinese Olympic Committee located in Peking [now Beijing], and 2) to maintain recognition of the Chinese Olympic Committee located in Taipei. All matters pertaining to names, anthems, flags and constitutions will be the subject of studies and agreements which will have to be completed as soon as possible.’
The full session approved this motion by 36 to 30. The IOC executive board modified it slightly, changing part 2 to read ‘to maintain recognition of the Olympic Committee located in Taipei’.

The stained glass window commemorating Lord Killanin in St Enda’s Church, Spiddal, Co. Galway.

The stained glass window commemorating Lord Killanin in St Enda’s Church, Spiddal, Co. Galway.

Amateurism

The other major accomplishment of the Killanin presidency was the loosening of the rules on amateurism at the Olympics. Although amateurism was not completely eliminated, as it basically would be under Juan Antonio Samaranch, who succeeded him, Killanin attempted to lift some of the restrictions so that Western nations’ athletes could enjoy some of the state, or business, support given to athletes from Eastern bloc nations.Killanin also worked to open up the Olympic movement. In 1973 he organised the tenth Olympic congress in Varna, Bulgaria, the first in 43 years (nine had been held from 1894 to 1930). Brundage had never convened an Olympic congress, presumably because he saw no need to consult with the national Olympic committees (NOCs), international sports federations (IFs) or anyone else, but Killanin thought it important to solicit their input. He considered this so important, in fact, that in 1975 he formed the Tripartite Commission, representing the IOC, the NOCs and the IFs, and he served as its first chairman. Unfortunately, the last year of Killanin’s reign as president saw him again facing a boycott, this time of the Moscow Olympics by the United States. The boycott was in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and was led by US President Jimmy Carter, who attempted to get all the American allies to join the boycott and even sought to start an alternative Olympic Games. Eventually, 63 nations boycotted, or at least did not compete—their precise reasons for not competing were usually mired in political legerdemain. Killanin was criticised for the boycott, as he did not personally visit Carter or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, preferring to work through diplomatic channels from his home in Ireland. In one of his best-known public statements, he had earlier in 1980 closed the Lake Placid Winter Olympics with a statement obviously directed at the boycotting nations:
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I feel these Games have proved that we do something to contribute to the mutual understanding of the world, what we have in common and not what our differences are. If we can all come together it will be for a better world and we shall avoid the holocaust which may well be upon us if we are not careful.’
Killanin had stated in 1972 that he would serve only one eight-year term. In 1980 several IOC members urged him to reconsider and to stand for re-election but he refused, handing over the reins to Samaranch. Upon his retirement as IOC president in 1980, Killanin was awarded the Olympic Order in Gold for his efforts in serving the IOC, and he was named ‘honorary president for life’ of the IOC. He retired to his home in Dublin, which he had never actually left, and spent his Olympic retirement serving as a director for numerous Irish companies. In his later years his health was quite poor, and he died in Dublin on 25 April 1999. His requiem Mass took place in his parish church, the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, Rathmines, and was attended by the president of Ireland, the taoiseach and the president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch. Following a bilingual funeral at St Enda’s Church in Spiddal, Co. Galway, Lord Killanin was buried in the family plot.  HI
Bill Mallon is a past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH).

Further reading:

Lord Killanin, My Olympic years (London, 1983).D. Miller, Olympic guardians, 1894–2013 (London, 2011).N. Müller, One hundred years of Olympic congresses, 1894–1994 (Lausanne, 1994).L. Naughton & J. Watterson, Irish Olympians (Dublin, 1992).

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