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Alexander Wolff
February 21, 1997
FROM THE RULING FAMILY TO THE RESIDENT JOCKOCRACY, SPORTS ARE A DEFINING ELEMENT IN THE BIKINI MECCA OF MONACO
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February 21, 1997

Money Co.

FROM THE RULING FAMILY TO THE RESIDENT JOCKOCRACY, SPORTS ARE A DEFINING ELEMENT IN THE BIKINI MECCA OF MONACO

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In this place that for so long staked its livelihood on the losses of others, the first family has recently suffered profound losses of its own: Rainier, his wife, who was killed in a car accident; Princess Caroline, her second husband, Stefano Casiraghi, who died in a powerboat accident eight years later; and Princess Stephanie, her ex-husband, Daniel Ducruet, whom she divorced last October after he was photographed poolside flagrante delicto with a former Miss Nude Belgium.

Prince Albert, the heir to Rainier's throne, is the one happy exemption from this sad streak, and sports may be part of the reason. Not that he has won much of anything in the can of his bobsled; he never placed higher than 25th in his three Winter Games. But there's something winning about the extent of his appetite for athletics: He is president of Monaco's yacht club and of the principality's swimming, track and bobsled federations. His influence was also instrumental in helping Monaco lure the aforementioned international sports bodies along with such events as the Special Olympics, the World Monopoly Championships and the Dream Team's 1992 pre-Barcelona training camp.

How much of a sporting omnivore is the athlete formally known as Prince? He has a weight room in the palace, and in the morning, if the sea is calm, he'll jog down to the port of Fontvieille and take his sea kayak out on the Mediterranean. He frequently joins moonlighting resident athletes—Bubka, McKoy, Sainz and Rominger—on Monaco's Star Team for the Children, a soccer troupe that travels around Europe to play benefits for charity. Of the 17 sports accommodated by Monaco's Stade Louis II sports facility, Albert has partaken of judo (he's a black belt), boxing (workouts, not bouts), gymnastics, soccer, swimming, volleyball and weightlifting.

In addition, at Lycée Albert I, he rowed and captained the handball team. At Amherst College he played four years of soccer, swam until he caught the flu during his sophomore season, played a little volleyball and jayvee tennis and threw the javelin. While attending language school at Cambridge University, he gave rugby a try. And one summer, at age 17, as a waterfront counselor at Camp Tecumseh on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, he coached the 10-and-under boys to a dual-meet victory so sweet that if you ask him about it today, the prince will triumphantly enunciate every syllable of the vanquished camp—Pe-mi-ge-was-sett. "I just can't see myself being inactive," he says. "Sports are so much a part of my life and my character, and they're a way to escape. I had to travel pretty far to find a bobsled track. It got me into a completely different environment with completely different people and allowed me to be in the Olympics, which is the greatest thrill of my life."

Albert has had his share of sporting mishaps: During the cycling portion of a minitriathlon in Monaco four years ago, he swerved to avoid a camera crew, skidded and ruptured a tendon in his wrist. And he has twice essayed the Paris-Dakar rally, neither time with much success. "Broke down both years on the same day in pretty much the same place in Niger," he says, vowing not to enter the race again. "Someone was trying to tell me something."

But he is an Olympian. In addition to his participation in the Winter Games, he's a member of the International Olympic Committee—in fact, the only member of that sclerotic body to actually compete in Lillehammer, where he lived quite unceremoniously in the athletes' village, and his credential read ALBERT GRIMALDI. He also served as the IOC observer for modern pentathlon in Atlanta. "It's the one sport that probably would have been perfect for me," he says. "I was a pretty good fencer, and I rode a lot as a kid. And shooting and running and swimming, you can always work on."

Albert turns 39 on March 14, and when he succeeds the 73-year-old Rainier he will be the 33rd Grimaldi to rule. In keeping with a deal his father hammered out with French president Charles De Gaulle in 1962, Monaco will revert to France if the as-yet-unmarried prince héréditaire should fail to produce an heir—page through this issue, Albert; page through it carefully, my man—though Albert has the option of designating his successor as well.

Only 5,000 of Monaco's residents are citizens, and, in part because they are so few, the palace can treat each with paternalistic solicitude. No Monegasques, not even the Grimaldis, are permitted in the casino where the depredations of gaming might touch them. "It is as if the prince is saying, 'This is not good for the family,' " says Jean-Pierre Viale, the Monaco native who played the sleazy nightclub emcee in Blue Velvet. "He is like the bartender who chooses not to drink or the surgeon who will not operate on his own family."

But Monaco is a place small enough so that a commoner might show a prince reciprocal concern. Growing up with a front-row seat for the Grand Prix, Rainier developed a taste for fast cars that, while suiting his pre-Grace life as a heedless playboy, landed him in several auto accidents. Viale tells how a number of Monegasques, including a great-grandfather of his who worked in the palace, pleaded with the young Rainier to give up racing for the good of the country and ultimately prevailed on him to be a collector of roadsters rather than a pilot of them.

Find the switchback curve over which Grace's Rover 3500 plunged, and you have located Monaco's grassy knoll, the place to which the principality's loss of innocence might be fixed. According to Robert Lacey's biography Grace, only days before the accident, at the Grimaldis' weekend house high above the Mediterranean in Roc Agel, she still thought Stephanie would soon be going to Paris to study fashion. But her younger daughter's boyfriend, Paul Belmondo, planned to learn how to drive race cars, and Stephanie told her mother that she was going to race car school too. Agitated and perhaps arguing with Stephanie, who was a passenger in the car, Grace is believed to have suffered a stroke as she tried to negotiate the serpentine descent into town. Couple that tragedy with the 1990 death of Casiraghi, then 30 and the defending world offshore champ, the day after his announcement that he would "soon" give up the sport, and the instinct to keep Rainier—and Albert, who as a boy wished he were Jackie Stewart—out of fast conveyances looks to be a sound one.

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