Advertisement

IOC's Madame Berlioux;NEWLN:Is Power Behind Scene

'I follow the policy of the President. My function is not to set up his policy, but to enforce it.' -- Monique Berlioux, 57, salaried diector of the International Olympic Committee.

Queen Boadicea went into battle in a chariot. Monique Berlioux used a wheelchair.

Advertisement

Madame Berlioux, director of the International Olympic Committee, still remembers vividly her dramatic entrance in March, 1967, which eventually led her to holding one of the highest executive posts in world sport.

Berlioux's duties can be likened to running a multi-nation government, ensuring that the IOC with its 154 member countries, functions smoothly. She oversees finances -- including multi-million dollar negotiations of

TV and radio broadcasting rights

'I follow and public relations, edits the monthly 'Olympic Review' and prepares IOC Sessions, Executive Board meetings and various Commission meetings.

But in 1967, the former Olympic swimmer and journalist found she had time on her hands when she resigned her post as inspector general of the French Ministry of Sport and Youth.

'I had just completed a second book on the Olympic Games which I wanted to make into a documentary film and needed to have it sponsored and approved by the IOC,' said Berlioux. 'So I went to London to see Lord Killanin, who was then in charge of the first IOC press commission.'

Advertisement

Lord Killanin, later to become the IOC president, was in conference with Lord Luke of Pavenham, East Germany's Dr. Heinz Schobel and Dutch IOC secretary-general Johan Westerhof to discuss ways of publicizing the Games.

Even though she had an appointment, the four must have been amazed when Madame Berlioux, her left leg encased in plaster and pointing like an archer's arrow at the commission, glided regally into the room in a wheelchair, pushed by her nephew.

Berlioux explained she had broken her leg cE:ling in the country.

'It was a very windy day and I fell off and suffered a triple fracture,' she recalls. 'My left leg needed to be in plaster for four months, but I was determined not to miss that meeting.'

The attractive blonde Frenchwoman, then 41, must have impressed the assembly even though they were not in favor of the documentary. One week later she received a telephone call from Westerhof offering her a public reltions post at the IOC's 19th century Chateau de Vidy headquarters in Lausanne.

Berlioux's husband, French novelist Serge Groussard, was in Israel at the time and after calling him she decided to accept the offer.

'I thought I would try. It could not have been as boring as my work with the Ministry, checking equipment.'

Advertisement

But her appointment was nearly the shortest on record -- 'I was homesick after a couple of days and went back home, but then I thought it over and returned.'

She soon realized Westerhof and the then IOC President Avery Brundage were at odds.

'They were quarreling from when I first arrived. Their characters clashed. They were not on very good terms during the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, but nothing was done because the summer Games in Mexico were at stake.

'It was very strange in Mexico. We were staying at the Hotel Camino Royale. Avery Brundage had a suite in one corner of the hotel and Westerhof a suite at the exact opposite end. You had to walk one kilometer (.621 mile) from one to the other. I don't think they spoke a word to each other there.'

Matters came to a head when Brundage discovered Westerhof wanted the Marquess of Exeter tobe the next IOC President. 'Avery Brundage then convened a meeting and asked Westerhof to resign, which he did in January, 1969.'

But the vast IOC machinery had to continue. The IOC decided to change the title of secretary-general to director and advertized the vacancy. 'They saw several applicants before finally asking me to assume the work,' Berlioux said.

Advertisement

She carried out the duties for two years, re-shaping the administration, before taking action.

'At the end of 1971, I suddenly decided I should rebel and be recognized as director, seeing I had been doing the work since 1969,' she says.

The IOC, aware of her administrative flair, finally appointed Berlioux official director during the IOC Session at the 1972 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan.

It was the highest post held by a woman in sport, its importance signified in financial terms, now carrying a handsome six-figure annual salary.

When Berlioux first joined the IOC, the secretariat numbered only half a dozen or so employees. 'We now have 67 in four different buildings, in addition to several consultants and lawyers,' she says.

Her stature has been commensurate with the growth of her staff until, like many a showbusiness mega star, her full name has become almost redundant.

Just mention 'Madame' in the world of amateu sports and there is no need for further identification.

She has worked with three IOC presidents -- the late Avery Brundage, Lord Killanin and the incumbent, Juan Antonio Samaranch -- but has never been overshadowed.

Her powerful presence has led more than one sports official to say in the past: 'Madame is the only man in the IOC.'

Advertisement

But she is decidedly feminine and not an IOC member, being a salaried employee. Berlioux is also quick to deny she is the power behind the throne.

'I follow the policy of the president,' she says. 'My function is not to set up his policy, but to enforce it.'

Unlike IOC officers and members, Berlioux does not go through the election process and her present contract runs until 1988.

It is her powerful presence which gives the IOC continuity and provides incoming IOC presidents with a valuable prop and sounding board.

'The IOC president is elected for eight years and that is longer than the U.S. president,' she says. 'Four years is not long enough. A president can do a lot of good in eight years, although he can also do a lot of harm,' she adds.'

Berlioux admits it helps to be a shrewd psychologist having to work in close harmony with changing presidents.

'From time to time, I have been analyzing the change of ways of working with different people. Sometimes it is difficult to adapt,' she says.

'It took one or two years to adapt to Lord Killanin, to understand his humor and his moods. I had worked with Lord Killanin on press matters, so he was not completely unknown when he came as president, but the way he dealt with problems was very different from Avery Brundage. Lord Killanin is a very cheerful person with a great sense of humor, which is very nice when you are working.

Advertisement

'Avery Brundage was also very humorous, maybe not at work or with his colleagues, but you could make him laugh very easily and he loved to tell amusing stories. He seemed autocratic and he knew what he wanted. He wanted to be No. 1 in everything and to have the red carpet treatment, but at the same time he could be very nice.'

Berlioux acknowledges Samaranch, the former Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, has shown himself to be 'very professional' since becoming the IOC's eighth president in 1980.

'He is our first full-time president, living here in Lausanne, and so there is much more contact,' she says.

Berlioux was aware she was storming a male bastion when she joined the IOC hierarchy 14 years ago and even now there are only three women among the 85 IOC members.

'I think there should not be any restrictions against women, even if it still exists. I suppose if I had been 10 or 20 years younger at the time, it would not have been possible,' says Berlioux, who celebrates her 58th birthday December 22.

'Even now I am left out on some occasions, isolated. Sometimes I react as if I do not notice. But in counterpart, sometimes I get better treatment than if I was a man. It balances out.'

Advertisement

However, she believes women will not emerge as a force within the IOC until one is elected to the nine-strong Executive Board. 'I don't see that happening for some time and we certainly won't have a woman president this century.'

Had Berlioux taken a different path, she would have made an ideal candidate.

'Perhaps, I would have liked to have been an IOC member, but it is impossible to change from one side to another,' she concedes. 'And I really enjoy my job, it is a tremendous challenge.'

Berlioux admits working with men as a journalist, first with France Soir and then with L'Aurore, helped her, but recalls she had some problems in the earlier years when her striking looks made her an obvious target.

Citing one particularly amorous famous French journalist, she recalls: 'He was my terror when I was working for France Soir because he wanted to pinch me every time I went near him, so I had to take a roundabout route.

'Now, when I see him years after, it seems so funny,' she adds with a laugh.

Berlioux gives the appearance of being austere, but the public face hides a sense of almost coquettish humor, a bright twinkle in her brown eyes betraying an in-joke as she faces the world's press at conferences.

Advertisement

Humor and loyalty figure high in her priorities. 'Loyalty is a very important quality in a person,' she says.

She practices what she preaches, showing fierce loyalty to her staff, but ostracizing anyone when it is not reciprocated, even to the extent of handing out instant dismissals.

The value of loyalty has been indelibly etched on her character since her experiences as a teenager in German-occupied France during World War II.

'You were obliged to get involved in the war, if you had some feelings for your country. It was quite a dangerous period, helping with the Resistance, carrying messages and doing other things like hiding people.

'There was a nucleus in our college. We sometimes used to do foolish things. I remember when there was a law for Jews to wear Star of Davids. We sewed them on our clothes and paraded in the boulevard. Now, I think it was a little bit presumptuous. People were arrested for this.'

In fact, Berlioux, who was then 'about 15 or 16' and her mother, Suzanne, were imprisoned by the Germans for two days after being caught in a restricted area.

'We had been taking messages for the Resistance, but luckily we delivered the papers before we were caught,' she says.

Advertisement

Berlioux's childhood was a time of constant change. She did not know her father, Victor Libotte, a Belgian-born tailor's cutter.

'He died probably before I was born or soon after. I never met him. There was my mother, my sister Marie-Luce, who was five years older than me, and my mother's parents, who lived in Nogent-en-Bassigny.

'My sister left Paris to live with my grandparents during the middle of the war and I alsostayed there often, but it was very difficult to get to the eastern part of France during the war.'

Berlioux, raised by her grandparents for much of her early childhood, moved to Paris when she was 10 following her mother's marriage to Eugene Berlioux, a physical education instructor.

She and her sister were encouraged to take up sport by her mother, who was swimming coach at the secondary school where she taught.

'We played basketball and did a lot of cE:ling and rowing as well as swimming. My mother thought sport was good for young girls, so that they had no time to do something else,' Madame says with a laugh.

She soon showed her potential as a world-class swimmer, winning the French 100 meter backstroke title as a 12 year-old. It was the first of 40 national titles in a 14-year career in which she dominated the backstroke over various distances and also the 400 meters freestyle.

Advertisement

'My sister was better at longer distances, but she finished her career before the War while I carried on until I was 26.'

Berlioux admits the war stifled her swimming career.

'It was very difficult during those years and even after the War it was hard to prepare for the Olympic Games. We had almost nothing to eat in my country. I remember when we saw the American girls with white bread, things like this, we really stared. And the bathing suits they had given us was of such bad material that they shrunk in the water.'

Illness also hampered her chances for the 1948 London Olympics. She had an appendectomy three weeks before the Games, but insisted on competing.

'I was headstrong, even then,' she admits. 'Unfortunately, I finished sixth in the semifinals of the 100 meters backstroke and did not make the final.'

A dispute with French swimming chiefs meant missing the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and she was involved in another brush with officialdom four years later when her club dropped her from the team, saying she was too old.

'I had better times than the others and I thought it was wrong,' she says. Berlioux's reaction was to sue the club, although her mother was one of the club coaches. 'I decided to drop the suit later. It was difficult with my mother coaching there.'

Advertisement

But it was not all swimming and sport for Berlioux, who also had to pursue her academic career. She studied English, Spanish, history and literature at the Sorbonne, obtaining a Masters Degree in 1948. She graduated into journalism with France Soir and later L'Aurore before marrying Le Figaro journalist Serge Groussard in 1956.

She made it plain before the marriage she would not change her name. 'I had been Libotte and then Berlioux, I was not going to have a third name,' she explains.

Her husband enlisted to fight in Algeria two months after the marriage, so she returned to journalism and public relations, prior to moving to the French Ministry of Sport and Youth.

It has been a long-distance marriage, 'but it seems to work,' she says, commenting on their separation since her move to Lausanne, while her husband stays in France writing novels.

'I would liked to have had children, but it was not to be,' she admits. 'But obviously if there had been a family it would have been impossible to do the work I am doing now.'

Berlioux is still very much a Frenchwoman despite living in Lausanne for the past 16 years.

Advertisement

'It is so provincial here, the people are xenophobic. I hardly know anyone,' says Madame, who looks forward to her limited visits to eastern France where she has a house near the sea.

'When I first came to Lausanne, I went to Paris almost every weekend to breathe. Home is not Lausanne. Home is 800 kilometers (497 miles) away.

'Unfortunately, I do not get there enough. I try to visit at Christmas, Easter, September and perhaps a week at another time with maybe one or two days in between.

'If I can manage a business trip, stopping in Paris, I can take a car and go down. It is three hours by car from here to Paris, but it is very difficult to cross the mountains.'

Mountains, like flying, are an anathema to the IOC director, who hates heights. She moved house one time, just because it had a panoramic view of Mont Blanc.

People who know her are surprised she didn't have the mountain moved.

Home in Lausanne is an apartment in a well-apppointed condominium with a 25-meter indoor pool, much-used by Berlioux. The apartment, like Madame, is elegant. Period furniture and tasteful paintings compete with Olympic memorabilia, which also hold pride of place in her French house.

Advertisement

To relax, she swims, goes for walks, does tapestry and watches television. 'I watch almost anything. Nothing to tax the brain, just as background to wash over me,' she says.

But Lausanne prevents her from indulging in one of her favorite recreations.

'There is nowhere to cE:le here,' she complains. 'I still like cE:ling, despite my accident. I have a very nice bicE:le at my home in France and as soon as I arrive, I am out riding. It is either that or swimming.'

Berlioux has witnessed some of the darkest moments in Olympic history -- the boycott of the 1976 Montreal Games by the Africans, the U.S-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 'Black September' massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

'Sometimes, I longed to be a journalist again,' she says, recalling those traumatic events. 'I will write my IOC memoirs one day.'

It is a project which would make compulsive reading, with her extensive knowledge through the labrynths of the intricate IOC network, which sometimes resembles the secret service with its cloak-and-dagger operations.

Some of her opinions are controversial.

Politics -- 'The Olympics are political whether you like it or not. They have always been political, even 50 years ago.'

Advertisement

Commercialism -- 'It really began in Munich in 1972. Sponsors are very important in many respects. They provide organizing committees with a lot of money, but they want something in return. When the door is open you cannot close it.'

Druge abuse -- 'You close doors, but others open. I wonder sometimes if the work done by our medical commission is worth it, because finally you don't discourage athletes, you merely incite doctors to invent something else.'

Amateurism -- 'I don't think true amateurism ever existed. Pierre Coubertin renovated the Games to fight against shamateurism, it was the first topic of discussion in 1892, nearly 100 years ago.'

Despite rumors she will leave the IOC when her contract expires in 1988, there is a strong possibility Madame Berlioux will still be very much on the scene until beyond the year 2,000.

'My mother did not retire until she was 75 and said it was too soon. So don't count me out,' she says.

That is something no-one has been brave enough to do and Berlioux's reign as Queen of world sport seems as secure as the Olympics themselves.

Adv for weekend, Dec.

Latest Headlines