Avery Brundage started poor. He was born in 1887 in Detroit and his father walked out when he was very young. He sold newspapers to help his mother buy bread. He worked his way through the University of Illinois, graduating in the class of '09. He was a big man on campus: a track star, a fraternity leader, a writer for the literary magazine The Scribbler. One of his contributions was entitled The Football Field as a Sifter of Men: "No better place than a football field could be chosen to test out a man.... Here a fellow is stripped of most of the finer little things contributed by ages of civilization and his virgin nature is exposed to the hot fire of battle. It is man against man, and there is no more thorough mode of exposing one's true self...."
Avery Brundage's own virgin nature was exposed to an assortment of sports that made football seem almost effete. Although heel-and-toe walking, the discus and the shotput were his specialties, he became a devotee of the tortures of the pentathlon, decathlon and, most excruciating of all, what he fondly calls "the old American All-Around."
This is a series of 10 events—100-yard dash, high jump, shotput, high hurdles, broad jump, pole vault, 56-pound weight throw, 880-yard walk, hammer throw and mile run. All of them are performed in a single afternoon with no more than five minutes rest between each. In 1914, when he was 26, Brundage won the U.S. Championship in the American All-Around; he did it again in 1916 and again in 1918 and he was canonized by sportswriters as "The Greatest Athlete of the Day" and "The Champion of Champions." Of course, nothing Brundage did—or could do—equaled the feats of his contemporary, Jim Thorpe. In Brundage's only Olympic competition, in 1912, he entered the pentathlon, in which he finished fifth, and the decathlon, in which he completed but eight events and wound up 15th. Thorpe won gold medals in both contests.
Brundage had nothing to do with Thorpe's subsequent disqualification and the forfeiture of his medals for professionalism. Yet, years later, when Thorpe was a drunk, sentimental sportswriters would periodically plead with Brundage, then the head of the USOC and the AAU, to bend the rules so the Indian could have his medals back. Brundage stood firm. " Thorpe was the greatest athlete of our time," he said. "Why does he need medals to prove it?"
The source of Brundage's wealth is the Avery Brundage Company, a construction firm he founded to take advantage of a building boom in Chicago in the '20s. He owned or put up many edifices on the Gold Coast or in the Loop, including the LaSalle Hotel. He no longer owns the LaSalle, but his office is in a three-room suite on the 18th floor. The office has two windows, darkly draped, looking out on parking-ramp roofs, chimneys and neon signs. The room is small, the carpet is worn. Brundage has an invaluable collection of Oriental art, which is housed in the Center of Asian Art and Culture in San Francisco, but on the walls of his office there are but two posters advertising the 1972 Olympics.
The place is so unprepossessing that one cannot help but think that if the desks were removed, the bookcases taken out and the Olympic posters torn off, this would be a hotel room with a brown metal bed and a traveling salesman from Mason City stretched out on it with his shoes on.
Avery Brundage is a self-made man, and his brand of ethics and his range of judgments have their roots in an impatience with anything that is not useful, negotiable or profitable. In the course of time, Brundage has said:
"I'm a 110% American and an old-fashioned Republican. People like me haven't had anybody to vote for since Hoover and Coolidge."
"You know, the ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games. They wouldn't even let them on the sidelines. I'm not so sure but what they were right."
"I have never known or heard of a single athlete who was too poor to participate in the Olympic Games."