Lord Killanin

Biographical information

Full nameMichael•Morris
Used name•Lord Killanin
Born30 July 1914 in London, Greater London, England (GBR)
Died25 April 1999 in Dublin (IRL)
Title(s)Lord Killanin of Dublin and Spiddal
NOC Ireland


Sir Michael Morris, Lord Killanin, the 3rd Baron Killanin of Dublin and Spiddal, succeeded Avery Brundage on 21 August 1972 to become the 6th President of the International Olympic Committee. At that time, he had been an IOC Member for 22 years (since 1950), and he would serve for only one term in office, eight years, but it was a tumultuous time.

Born in London on 30 July 1914, Michael Morris succeeded to the title of Lord Killanin when he was 13-years-old, upon the death of his uncle, Martin Morris, the 2nd Baron Killanin. Killanin was educated at Eton, the Sorbonne, and Magdalene College (Cambridge), where he boxed, rowed, and played rugby. His first sporting love, however, was horse racing. Early on, he also displayed talents for drama, serving as the President of the Cambridge University dramatic club.

After graduation, Killanin began a career as a journalist, first joining the Daily Express in London, and later moving to the Daily Mail. He eventually became the political and diplomatic correspondent for the Daily Mail and its sister publication, the Sunday Dispatch. When war was imminent, he volunteered for the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and later participated in the Normandy landings as a Brigade Major in the 30th Armored Battalion, for which he was later awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire). At the end of the war, in 1945, he married the former Mary Sheila Dunlap, who herself received an MBE for her work during the war in helping to break the famous German codes, Ultra and Enigma.

After the war, Killanin turned to film making, assisting the American director John Ford with the production of “The Quiet Man,” and he also worked on numerous other films. He continued his love of horses, eventually becoming a member of the Irish Turf Club, beginning in 1971.

Killanin was named the President of the Olympic Council of Ireland in 1950 and in 1952, was asked to join the International Olympic Committee. In 1965 he was named the IOC chef de protocol and Chairman of the Press Commission, the latter of which was a natural role for the former journalist. In 1967 he was named to the Executive Board as the 3rd Vice-President of the IOC. In 1970 he was named 1st Vice-President.

With the Presidential term of Brundage going on too long in the eyes of some IOC members, Killanin was pressured in 1968 to run against the incumbent president, but demurred. His refusal was based on his status, stating that he was not a wealthy man, like Brundage and all previous IOC Presidents, and he could not afford such a position. In 1972 Lord Killanin was elected President, but only after he insisted that he would need to have his expenses as IOC President paid. He ran the IOC out of his home in Dublin, with a phone, telefax, and a secretary, all paid for by the IOC.

Lord Killanin began his tenure as President six days after the worst tragedy in Olympic history, the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the München 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.

Shortly after taking office, Killanin was surprised to learn that the citizens of Denver were abrogating their responsibilities to host the 1976 Olympic Winter Games after a citizens’ referendum. With less than three years remaining until those Games, Killanin was fortunate in finding several capable candidate cities, and Innsbruck ably hosted the 1976 Olympic Winter Games.

Killanin was also confronted during the early years by the problems of the other 1976 host city, Montréal. 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 his IOC colleagues had met in Amsterdam in 1975 and secretly made plans for an alternative site to be ready on an emergency basis if needed.

Killanin’s problems in Montréal worsened on the eve of the Games when the African nations announced a boycott in protest of 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 to avoid it. It was ironic that a boycott over South Africa occurred in Killanin’s reign, as he had been sent to South Africa in September 1967 as part of a three-member IOC fact-finding tour to investigate South African sport. Killanin fought diligently to keep South Africa out of the Olympic Movement until they ended the use of apartheid in sport.

Africa was not the only political fiasco Killanin faced in Montréal. The Canadian government refused to allow Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) to compete under the name the Republic of China, as Canada recognized mainland China by that name, and not the island nation. The United States threatened a boycott if Taiwan was not allowed to compete, but nothing came of this. Killanin was not able to get the Canadians to capitulate and eventually the Taiwanese Olympic team was not allowed into Canada.

Killanin’s major accomplishment as President, however, was the resolution of the Chinese problem. During the next few years he worked furiously to see that the Montréal situation would not be repeated and that both Chinas could compete at the Olympic Games. Killanin formed a three-member IOC committee which 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 at the Session: “In the Olympic spirit, and in accordance with the Olympic Charter, the IOC resolves: 1) to recognize 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 36-30. The IOC Executive Board modified this slightly, changing part two to read “to maintain recognition of the Olympic Committee located in Taipei.”

The other major accomplishment of the Killanin presidency was loosening of the rules on amateurism at the Olympics. Although amateurism was not completely eliminated, as it basically would be under Juan Antonio Samaranch, Killanin attempted to lift some of the restrictions, so that the Western nations’ athletes could enjoy some of the same state, or business, support, given to the athletes from Socialist nations.

Killanin also worked to open up the Olympic Movement. In 1973 he organized an Olympic Congress in Varna, Bulgaria, the first in 43 years. Brundage had never held an Olympic Congress, but Killanin thought it important to get the input of the NOCs and IFs. So important, in fact, that in 1975 Killanin formed the Tripartite Commission, which was a coalition between 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 1980 Moscow Olympics by the United States. The boycott was in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and was led by American President Jimmy Carter, who attempted to get all the United States’ allies to join the boycott, and even sought to start alternative Olympic Games. Eventually, 63 nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics.

Killanin was criticized for the boycott, as he did not visit personally with Carter or Soviet Premier 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 the 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 for only one eight-year term. In 1980, several IOC members urged him to reconsider and stand for re-election but he refused, handing the reins over to Juan Antonio 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 business companies. In his later years, his health deteriorated and he died in Dublin on 25 April 1999.

Organization roles

Role Organization Tenure NOC As
President Olympic Federation of Ireland 1950—1973 IRL Lord Killanin
Member International Olympic Committee 1952—1980 IRL Lord Killanin
Executive Board Member International Olympic Committee 1967—1968 IRL Lord Killanin
3rd Vice-President International Olympic Committee 1968—1970 IRL Lord Killanin
1st Vice-President International Olympic Committee 1970—1972 IRL Lord Killanin
President International Olympic Committee 1972—1980 IRL Lord Killanin
Honorary President for Life International Olympic Committee 1980—1999 IRL Lord Killanin

Special Notes