The scene, and what it yielded, was so ironic, it had to be right out of Woody Allen. The time is March 1967, the place London, specifically a conference room in Lord Luke of Pavenham's office building. Behind locked doors, members of the International Olympic Committee are discussing new ways to publicize the Games in order to generate additional television income. Besides Lord Luke, the participants include Lord Killanin, then in charge of the IOC's press commission; East Germany's Dr. Heinz Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ábel, a member of that commission; Johan Westerhof of Holland, the IOC secretary general; and a Swiss assistant, Myriam Meuwly.
Although the committee has agreed to receive a petitioner, a former Olympian who is now a journalist, it is hardly prepared for her appearance when the door is opened. Sitting imperiously in a wheelchair pushed by her nephew, Dominique Coupat, Madame Monique Berlioux rolls into the chamber. Her left leg, encased in a hip-to-toe cast, precedes her like a lance at the ready. If the committee members seem taken aback, the blonde Frenchwoman seems utterly at ease; there is a charming smile on her lips and in her bright amber eyes.
Once France's finest swimmer, she is 41 years old now and has just resigned a position with the French Ministry for Youth and Sport. She has recently completed her second book on the Olympic Games, and that is the reason for her interview. She hopes the IOC will turn her book into a documentary film. The leg? Oh yes, a complicated fracture suffered in a bicycle accident. And it had been an arduous trip from Paris to London; Madame was unable to walk even on crutches. But no matter, Madame's pronounced fear of flying would have made it a trial in the best of circumstances.
Lord Killanin, who has never met Berlioux, shows no great enthusiasm as he listens to her proposal. After she is dismissed, he openly scoffs, saying to Westerhof, "Sounds rather pedestrian."
April 13, 1981
Less than two years later, Berlioux had replaced Westerhof as administrative head of the IOC. Now, a decade and a half later, she is often referred to simply as "Madame," and there isn't a soul in the byzantine hierarchy of sports federations and Olympic committees who would ask "Madame who?" She is the most important woman in amateur sports. When Madame speaks, people listen. And nobody, but nobody, laughs.
It was Westerhof himself who, shortly after the meeting in London, offered Berlioux a public relations job at the IOC's Lausanne headquarters. Almost immediately she was doing much of his work, and when Westerhof resigned under pressure in 1969, Madame was chosen to succeed him. The reason for Westerhof's downfall was that he liked to make decisions without the approval of the late Avery Brundage, the authoritarian president of the IOC.
"Westerhof thought being secretary general meant he was the boss," says Berlioux. "He forgot that the president was the boss. You never forget that. Maybe that's the advantage of being a woman. You accept more. I like to stay in the shadows."
From the shadows, Madame made things happen even before she was in a position of power. "One does not ever ask for authority," Madame says. "One takes authority."
When she became the director of the IOC, the new title for the secretary general's post, Berlioux inherited a tiny staff of half a dozen employees, who did the secretarial work for the IOC in a fairly haphazard fashion. Madame introduced new standards; she demanded long working hours and efficiency and the same unquestioning loyalty to herself that she gave Brundage.
"To me, the quality most important in a human being is loyalty," Madame says. "I hate being disappointed. Those who disappoint me, I prefer not to see them anymore. I wash them from my memory."
"She is a career woman with great willpower, great talent and great capacity for work," says Meuwly, now a court reporter for a Lausanne newspaper. "She loves power. When she arrived in Lausanne, we were a small group. We had no money. She was very tough. Little by little, she got organized and built up the secretariat [it now numbers 35]. Because of her, the IOC has taken on a spectacular character. She brought to it more decorum and a high degree of efficiency. While we had carried on in the modest Swiss way, she changed it all with her indomitable esprit fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºais."
IOC presidents have come and gone, Brundage making way for Killanin, who was succeeded by Juan Antonio Samaranch, a Spanish diplomat, but Madame remains, and her durability enhances her power. As a salaried employee—she makes $100,000 a year—she isn't a member of the IOC, an honor that has never been accorded to any woman. But she is the Lausanne Connection for the 85 unpaid IOC members—all rich, many titled, many septuagenarian—as well as their link with the 147 national Olympic committees and 26 international sports federations. She handles a staggering amount of correspondence, arranges and directs meetings and follows up on the decisions taken. She deals with budget matters and drives a hard bargain when the IOC's share of Olympic television rights is at stake. She also writes and edits the monthly Olympic Review and conducts press conferences with both alacrity and asperity. "Ask a dumb question and she demolishes you," says one journalist. Surprisingly, Madame confesses to some uneasiness before the press. "My hands are sweating every time," she says. "I know I make mistakes in English and I have no time to correct them. My accent is terrible. But now I have decided, once and for all, that I should not care about my accent but my vocabulary."
"She is closely watched, especially by the members of the executive board, because she is a woman," says Chief Accountant Jacques Belgrand, who has been working for Berlioux for 10 years. "She knows it and that's why she wants to do her work better than a man would."
During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the site of the 1984 Olympics, Berlioux drove herself relentlessly through a week of meetings, luncheons, cocktail parties and dinners while struggling to overcome the nine-hour time difference between L.A. and Lausanne. One of the reasons for the trip was to acquaint Samaranch, the new IOC president, with the 1984 venues. As Samaranch and Berlioux strolled into the Coliseum, the former (1932) and future Olympic stadium, with Peter Ueberroth, the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Berlioux turned to Ueberroth and said, "Has this been changed? When I last came here, 10 years ago, it was terribly shabby."
Ueberroth: "We got a new track."
Berlioux: "But you also changed the seats."
Ueberroth: "Yes. Some."
Although the L.A. committee is making all the preparations for the Games and will be the host, it too is new to the job and needs expert advice. "The best place to learn from is the IOC," says Ueberroth. "The meetings with President Samaranch and Madame Berlioux were primarily held so we could profit from their experience, and Madame Berlioux in particular was very helpful. She provides the continuity between the Games and helps each organizing committee get pointed in the right direction. Furthermore, the IOC has the right to co-negotiate our TV contracts. Madame was able to advise us of the history of prior negotiations with the same groups. She or her representative attends every negotiating session.
"She works very hard to get the policies of the president across and I think that is why our meetings were very lengthy. Since he is a new president to the IOC, his policies are also new to her and she has to bring them to us."
In L.A., Berlioux criticized the manner in which the local committee had been treating the press. "She emphatically instructed us to make progress in our relations with the press," says Ueberroth. "She told us that it was our responsibility to let the Olympic committees of all the nations know of our preparations through the media. She said we worked too quietly."
When asked how the talks had gone in Los Angeles, Berlioux replied, "Not bad."
Madame has little time for privacy, but power and luxury are substitutes she can appreciate. She spends much of her time behind a huge antique English desk in her well-appointed office in the Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau de Vidy, a 19th-century mansion that is IOC headquarters. At 55, she is a handsome woman of 5'7" and some 165 pounds, a few of which she attributes to too many business luncheons. She is commanding, vital, dignified, and she wears the right labels: the Hermès dress, the gold wristwatch by Les must de Cartier, the green-rimmed Christian Dior glasses that match her jade necklace. She moves easily among the members of the IOC and their elegant wives.
"These are women who have everything," says Meuwly. "It's a snob atmosphere. You have to conform to what is considered good taste, good ton."
In politics as well as dress, Berlioux's tastes run to the conservative: Charles de Gaulle is her favorite statesman. As a result, she is accused of being inflexible, one who doesn't care to weigh another person's views. She never reads newspaper editorials, she says, "because I like to make my own commentary."
Once when Brundage expounded his rigid stand on amateurism during a press conference, a journalist rose to tell him. "That's easy for you to say. You have a lot of money." Berlioux, who sat next to Brundage, answered for him, admonishing the reporter, "If you think money is that important, I feel sorry for you."
But Berlioux is also a realist when it comes to accepting the course "amateurism" has taken. "You cannot close the door now," she says. "The boat is taking water everywhere. We should not care if the athletes made money between the Games, but if it were at all possible, everybody should be equal at the Games, competing just for the glory of it. If I could, I would open the Games to everybody, but under the condition that maybe two months before and two months after the Games they must stay clean."
It is often said that if the IOC ever elects a female member, Madame Berlioux should be it. She views that possibility as a pragmatist rather than a feminist. As right arm to the IOC president, she is in a much more influential position than she would be as a member of the club. In subtle ways she can bring about changes in the IOC's policies or direct its president's thinking. "Sport teaches you to fight, but you have to last a little longer to win," she says. "Mr. Brundage looked strong, but he may have been a little weaker than he looked. You could make him do things, finally, by persuasion. Lord Killanin seemed weaker, but in the end he was more difficult than Brundage. So I sometimes did not convince him."
"Madame Berlioux's position is so strong," says Gèrald Piaget, a sports-writer for the Tribune de Genève, "because she is aware of her place at all times. She shows her superb intelligence by observing the boundaries of her position and being very discreet.
"Her detractors say of her that she is a feminist or even a lesbian, those things that strong women are usually accused of being. She has to be tough in her position, where she is always up against those old guys. She has method and drive, imagination, maturity and spirit. She is positive. But most of all, I find that she is very womanly. She is always sensitive to flowers and compliments, to a jolie phrase. She is not a Valkyrie."
Monique was born on Dec. 22, 1925 in Metz, France to Victor Libotte, a Belgian-born tailor's cutter, and his French wife, Suzanne. Her parents were divorced soon after her birth, her mother moving to Paris with Monique and Marie-Luce, her older sister. But because Monique was a frail child who suffered several attacks of whooping cough and was a burden at home, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nogent-en-Bassigny, a village in the northeast of France. "It was nice to have a garden," she says, "but Nogent was a very cold place and I missed my sister very much."
The only truly happy event Madame remembers of that period was when she was allowed to travel to Paris alone at the age of six. "It was quite an adventure," she says. "I had to change trains twice. I had this horrible country hat on, and when my mother saw me, she screamed and immediately cut off all the ribbons."
When Monique was 10 years old, she was reclaimed by her mother, who had married Eugène Berlioux, a physical education instructor. Madame Suzanne Berlioux had become the swimming coach of the secondary school in Paris where she was teaching, and whenever she took her classes to the piscine for lessons, Monique and her sister had to come along. "My mother thought it was much better for us to swim after school than to play," Monique says. "It was school, swim, then go to bed. When we were one minute late for swimming she yelled at us."
Monique went on to become a world-class competitor, winning her first national championship, in the 100-meter backstroke, at age 12. She swam competitively for 14 more years, winning 40 national titles in the backstroke at various distances and in the 400-meter freestyle. She also won the annual eight-km. swim in the Seine six times.
For the family, the World War II years were filled with fears. The pool she swam in was frequently used by German soldiers, and one day one of them accidentally dived in on top of Monique. In a flash Maman Berlioux took off her wooden shoes and, as Parisiennes around them froze in terror, threw them at the German's head. When the soldier came out of the pool, Maman beat at him with her fists. Sheepishly, he retreated before the onslaught. Another time, when Monique was about 17, she and her mother spent two days in jail because they had been caught in an area off limits to the French. "We were doing a little bit of rèsistance," says Berlioux. "We were couriers. Fortunately, we had already delivered the papers when we were caught.
"My mother is 82 now. She takes care of my country home in France, which is just a couple of miles from hers. She has been breeding cats, but now she is promising to put them on the Pill."
When the war was over, Berlioux set her sights on the 1948 Olympics in London. Her chances of winning a medal were wiped out by an appendectomy three weeks before the Games. She made it to the semifinals in the 100 backstroke, but a sixth place eliminated her from the finals.
"I remember seeing Monique at the London Olympics," says Piaget. "She struck me as a very headstrong girl. 'My appendectomy will not stop me from competing,' she told the press, and she had this defiant attitude. I never forgot her eyes, so very bright, glaring at you. I thought, this one is not easy to deal with."
The French swimming federation was to discover that in 1952. Berlioux was still France's best swimmer, but she refused to compete in the Helsinki Olympics because of two pounds of jam that hadn't been delivered to her. "We still had a lot of food problems," Madame says, "and the federation gave jam to all the swimmers except me. So I told them I would not go to Helsinki. I was very stubborn. And after Helsinki, unfortunately for them, I won the French championship again."
At this point Berlioux decided to retire from competition and devote herself to journalism. She had studied at the Sorbonne—Spanish, English, history and literature—and received a Master of Arts degree in 1948. While in school in the war years, she had been a sports reporter for an underground paper that later became France-Soir. In 1954, Berlioux was invited to join 200 members of an international "Association of Communist Women" on a trip to Peking. She accepted, but told her hosts that she wasn't a Communist and that her reporting might not be favorable. Her articles landed her a job with L'Aurore, a right-wing newspaper in Paris.
Two years later she married Serge Groussard, a journalist for Le Figaro, and was prepared to forsake her career. But, at the same time, she decided not to forsake her name, which took courage in the '50s. "Berlioux was my third name already," she says. "First I was a Libotte, then a Poincarrè, which was the name of my grandparents, and when I went back to my mother I inherited the name of her second husband. Enough! Furthermore, I don't see why a woman ought to take her husband's name. It infuriates me."
The hiatus from work was a brief one. Two months after they were married, Groussard enlisted to fight in Algeria for an Algèrie Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºaise, and Berlioux went back to journalism and public relations work. Twice she was pregnant; each time she suffered a miscarriage.
When Berlioux moved to Lausanne in 1967, Groussard stayed in Paris, though he always accompanies her to the Olympics. "We are separated for the time being," she says. "He has become quite sauvage. He decided to go back to literature and he started writing several novels at the same time. We shall see what gets finished." They had a happy reunion last February when Berlioux flew to Paris for their silver wedding anniversary.
Myriam Meuwly first met Berlioux in 1963, during the African Games in Dakar, and that is where Berlioux first met Brundage. "Men were very attracted to her," Meuwly recalls. "She was slimmer then and sweeter. She was so golden, her hair, her eyes, her tan. I wanted to be like her. We both escorted Brundage because there was nobody else who spoke English." The three of them dined together in grand style and later, whenever Brundage asked Meuwly to accompany him to Paris, they would often meet Berlioux for an evening out. "She was always fun to be with," says Meuwly. "She loves caviar and strawberries and good red wine. We laughed a lot. But once, and I think I can reveal this without betraying her, she said to me, 'What wouldn't I give for a little tenderness.' "
It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that Berlioux is a compulsive gift-giver. As proper and stern as she aims to be, her generosity usually—as she must mean it to—smooths the resentment she may have caused. She always remembers the birthdays of her employees and throws lavish Christmas parties, usually at fine restaurants, where she presents tasteful and expensive gifts to each of her guests.
Berlioux remains fiercely French; she had a hard time accepting life in Lausanne. "At first I went to Paris every weekend to breathe," she says. "The Swiss life is very comfortable, but you have to get used to it." Early on in Lausanne she used to drive her car right up on the sidewalks to park as Parisians do, and each time there would be people chasing after her into the store, reminding her that she couldn't park there. "When I complained that you had to walk uphill all the time," she says, "I was told, 'That's why the girls here have such pretty legs.' Arrh!"
By now Madame has come to enjoy Lausanne and the comfort of her attractive duplex in a modern apartment complex that includes a 25-meter outdoor pool, in which she swims 40 laps whenever she can find the time. When she travels she takes every opportunity to dip into a pool or the ocean. The only time she forgoes a swim is when there wouldn't be enough time left for her to dry her hair before the next meeting. "I would look terrible," she says.
She usually wears her hair Peter Pan style, but before meetings and social events in Lausanne she calls upon Jean of Vogue Hair to create a more elegant coiffure. During a recent visit, Madame could be observed listening to Jean, who insisted on telling her all about his latest romantic escapades. Madame, captive in her chair, looked serious, nodding occasionally, evidently to show her intense interest. Later, walking up avenue Villamont, she said, "Jean is such a pèdèraste. When he goes on like that, I have time to think about something else."
Later she showed off her tastefully furnished apartment, with its fine pieces of period furniture and paintings, most of which were done by friends in Paris. Still waiting to be given their proper places were mementos from the Moscow Olympics—half a dozen icons, lacquer boxes and an enormous portrait of her by the Soviet painter Ilya Glazunov, done in bright colors with St. Basil's as a backdrop. It was a present Samaranch commissioned as soon as he had been elected IOC president, because, as he says, "We are lucky to have Madame as director."
Berlioux's greatest treasure, however, is her collection of Olympic torches, displayed on top of a bookcase. She has all of them, except the one from the 1936 Games in Berlin, the first time a torch was relayed from Greece to the Olympic stadium. Torch after torch after torch, they represent the essence of Madame Berlioux's life: the continuity of the Olympic Games.