For His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, the final thin hope of a change of Russian heart dissipated on the last day of May. A good two hours earlier than expected, he and his small delegation were aboard a white tri-jet Falcon 50 retreating west from Moscow, on course for rain-soaked Paris. The day before, they had been formally greeted at Sheremetyevo Airport and borne by black Zil limousine to a villa in the Lenin Hills reserved for guests of the state. At 10 o'clock the next morning they were accorded a meager, 90-minute meeting at the Kremlin. The proceedings were predictable in every way, save for the studied insult in the government's choice of one Nikolai Talyzine, a state functionary of the middle rank, to deliver the final nyet!
And more than a week later, not even the tranquilizing splendor of a suite at the Plaza Athénée off the Champs Élysées in Paris had cleared the bleakness from the president's face. "I knew nothing would be given," he said. "I went there for the sake of history. To show that I tried to the end. I was surprised at the man they sent to meet me, that they thought this was the level at which the problem must be treated. But nothing else was a surprise."
The shirt of His Excellency may be starched but it is not stuffed. A mischievous smile broke through. "Listen," he said dryly, "you know who was all nerves? You know who really got the big disappointment in Moscow? It was Nebiolo, that's who."
The delegation consisted of Samaranch, Primo Nebiolo, president of the Summer Games Sports Federations, IOC director Monique Berlioux and Mario Vázquez Raña, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, and as Samaranch related, Nebiolo, the Italian, spent his evening in the Lenin Hills crouched over a shortwave radio, listening to the commentary on the European Cup, the soccer final between Rome and Liverpool. The game had gone into overtime before Liverpool won.
"Poor Primo," said the president. "He was sad all the way home." Samaranch turned to his visitor. "Remember last April?" he said. "When you flew with me? This was the same airplane. But let me assure you the ambience was quite different coming back from Moscow. And no one played dominoes."
His visitor recalled it well, the Falcon with the red, green and white colors of Mexico emblazoned on its tail heading northwest across the mountains of Venezuela, and the way it had been transformed into a smoky airborne taverna of Old Spain as it echoed to the barks of triumph, the groans of surrender that go with the ancient game of dominoes, and how, suddenly, to cries of chagrin, El Presidente of the Olympics snapped down a double zero to take the series, grinning and stowing away the $10 pot.
He had earned his small triumph. For the first time in six days, aside from minimal hours of sleep, he had slipped out of his jacket and loosened his tie. He had been in five countries, listened to more than 100 speeches and made close to 20 of his own. He had been closeted in as many meetings, had traveled more than 15,000 miles and had eaten too many indifferent buffet meals. Three hours earlier he had left Paramaribo in the Republic of Suriname and an hour more would see him in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but still far from home. The Falcon would pause for refueling, then head over the dark Atlantic first to the Azores, then to Geneva.
Juan Antonio's Flying Circus had set a killing pace. "Every time we land there's a fresh team waiting for me," he had said ruefully on touchdown in Suriname, and his bone-tiredness was registered in his face. At 63, he was working 15-hour days, and Suriname was the 122nd country he had visited since he took office in 1980.
Then, as the dominoes were cleared away, the bleak look faded and his natural charm broke through. Samaranch is slight and vulnerable-looking; a Disney animator would see him as a bright-eyed woodsy little animal, head cocked winningly to one side. Now, mischievously, he said, "Ask me what of all things on earth I should like to be."
"World dominoes champion," you say, feeding him.