Rogge leads Samaranch tribute

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GENEVA, April 22- Political leaders and the cream of the world sport's governing elite have paid tribute to Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former International Olympic Committee chief who died on Wednesday.Samaranch, 89, displayed "extraordinary vision and talent" in unifying the Olympic movement, his successor Jacques Rogge said.

"I cannot find the words to express the distress of the Olympic Family," said Rogge, who in 2001 took over after the Spaniard has served 21 years at the helm of the most powerful organisation in sport.

"I am personally deeply saddened by the death of the man who built up the Olympic Games of the modern era, a man who inspired me, and whose knowledge of sport was truly exceptional."

He added: "We have lost a great man, a mentor and a friend who dedicated his long and fulfilled life to the Olympic movement."

Spain’s King Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia sent a message of condolence to the bereaved family acknowledging his "vocation in the service of Spain, Catalonia and Olympism", the royal household said.

The royal couple will attend his funeral in Barcelona Thursday.

Russia’s leaders paid their own tributes.

"Juan Antonio Samaranch was a great friend of our country and his death is a loss not only for those who were linked to the Olympic movement but for all the residents of Russia," President Dmitry Medvedev said in a telegram.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a telegram paid tribute to a "brilliant, multi-talented, wonderfully good-humoured and open person."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy lauded Samaranch’s attempts to reach out beyond national boundaries to make the Olympics a truly global event.

"A very big and very important figure, Mr Samaranch facilitated the growth in power of the Olympic movement by opening it up to every athlete and every country," said a statement from Sarkozy.

Lamine Diack, president of world athletics governing body the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) also paid tribute.

"Samaranch worked with great energy, intelligence and the skills of a natural diplomat to create a unified Olympic movement and to ensure that the Olympic Games became the world’s most influential sporting event," said Diack.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter saluted Samaranch’s "sense of commitment" and efforts "to protect sport" during a 35-years acquaintance.

"I always held him in great esteem," said Blatter.

Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner said: "Juan Antonio Samaranch was one of the great figures of the Olympic movement and an exceptional ambassador for the world of sport…

"The Olympic flame burns brighter today thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch."

Further tributes poured in from around the world, with Seb Coe, chairman of the 2012 London Olympics organising committee and a close friend of Samaranch, praising his leadership qualities.

"I have lost a friend, one that moulded my path through sport from my early 20s, and the world has lost an inspirational man," said Coe, who won Olympic gold in the 1500m at the 1980 Games in Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles games.

"A man that challenged us all to fight for sport, its primacy and its autonomy, a fight he led fearlessly from the front, creating an extraordinary sporting movement that reaches millions of people around the world."

Sir Craig Reedie, the former British Olympic Association chairman and an IOC member since 1994, credited Samaranch with encouraging London to bid for the 2012 Games after previous unsuccessful bids from Birmingham and Manchester.

"He was quite clear that the only British city that would win was London," recalled Reedie.

"He used to give me a hard time over Wembley because it wasn’t designed like the Stade de France (in Paris) with a running track as well."

Competitors at the ATP Barcelona Open tennis tournament, which Samaranch often attended, remembered the Catalan with a minute’s silence prior to the second-round match between Spaniards David Ferrer and Marcelo Granollers.

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