ATLANTA (AP) _ IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch on Friday defended the granting of top Olympic awards to former Communist dictators from Romania and East Germany.

Samaranch also defended the commercialization of the Atlanta Games, while one top IOC official said Nike's marketing presence is aimed at promoting itself rather than the Olympics.

Samaranch, the IOC president since 1980, came under fire in an HBO program this week that questioned why the organization presented Olympic Orders to Nicolae Ceaucescu and Erich Honecker.

Ceaucescu ruled Romania for four decades before being overthrown and executed in 1989. Honecker was ousted as leader of East Germany in 1989 after 18 years in power. He died two years ago in exile in Chile.

``Presidents Ceaucescu and Honecker received not only awards from the IOC, they received important awards of many countries around the world, many Western countries,'' Samaranch said at a news conference a few hours before the opening of the Atlanta Games.

Samaranch said Ceaucescu was honored because Romania broke the Soviet-led Communist boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Romania was the only Eastern bloc country besides Yugoslavia to ignore Moscow's orders.

Samaranch said the IOC honored Honecker because East Germany was the first Communist country to confirm its participation in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, heading off the possibility of another boycott.

``The gestures of these two men were important for the Olympic movement,'' Samaranch said.

On another controversial point, Samaranch was asked about reports he said the Olympic movement is more important than the Catholic religion.

``I never said this,'' he said. ``Maybe the Olympic movement has more followers than any kind of religion in the world.''

Samaranch gave a guarded endorsement of Atlanta organizers' preparations for the Centennial Games.

``We are extremely satsified with the organization of the games _ for the time being,'' he said. ``The IOC will express itself at the end of the games.''

Responding to criticism that commercialization of the games has gotten out of hand in Atlanta, Samaranch said the Olympics are the only major sports event where sponsors' logos are banned from inside the venues.

``This is a tradition we will keep for the present and the future,'' he said.

Billy Payne, head of the Atlanta organizing committee, rejected suggestions sponsors had turned the city into a merchandising mall.

``The conduct of our sponsors has been good, tasteful and consistent with the rules of the IOC,'' he said. ``Merchandising is a consequence of the party, the celebration going on. It's Atlanta getting ready to party.''

Dick Pound, an IOC vice president and the Olympics' top marketing official, defended aggressive efforts to crack down on ``ambush marketers'' _ companies which try to pass themselves off as Olympic sponsors.

``It is unethical and unacceptable,'' he said. ``If we don't stop it, it will diminish the value of sponsorships in the future.''

Pound was asked whether Nike's big presence in Atlanta served to promote the Olympics.

``I would think Nike is here supporting Nike rather than the Olympic Games,'' he said. ``It is not surprising many corporations try to take advantage of the location of the games.

``What we try to keep them from doing is suggesting to the public that they have any involvement with the Olympics or they actually support the Olympic effort that's going on here in Atlanta. As long as they refrain from doing that, this is a free country and everyone is welcome.''