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AVERY BRUNDAGE: The Man Behind the Mask
William Oscar Johnson
August 04, 1980
Since the Modern Olympic Era began in 1894, six men have served as president of the International Olympic Committee. Demetrius Vikelas of Greece was the first. Ireland's Lord Killanin, whose tenure will end with the conclusion of the Moscow Games, is the most recent. But none of these men wielded more authority, had a greater influence on amateur sport—or embodied so many contradictions—as Avery Brundage of the U.S., who died in 1975 at the age of 87.
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August 04, 1980

Avery Brundage: The Man Behind The Mask

Since the Modern Olympic Era began in 1894, six men have served as president of the International Olympic Committee. Demetrius Vikelas of Greece was the first. Ireland's Lord Killanin, whose tenure will end with the conclusion of the Moscow Games, is the most recent. But none of these men wielded more authority, had a greater influence on amateur sport—or embodied so many contradictions—as Avery Brundage of the U.S., who died in 1975 at the age of 87.

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At the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, the four-man American bobsled was discovered to have been sabotaged—the bolts had been loosened. Once it was repaired, Brundage declared, "The sled needs testing. I'll ride it down myself." Glasses taped to his balding head and still wearing a business suit, he pulled on a crash helmet, took a seat on the sled and zoomed to the bottom.

Always one to trust his first impression, Brundage referred to his handshakes as "feelers," contact that produced enormous—and instantaneous—amounts of information about people. Once in the 1940s, he shook hands with Ernest Hemingway and disliked him at first touch. Brundage pronounced his verdict: "He probably won't last long."

His religious preferences were unusual, too. He had left the Anglican Church in the mid-1940s and became a Taoist, a consequence of his passion for Oriental art, a preoccupation that led him to acquire exquisite collections of more than 6,000 Shang, T'ang, Sung and Ming dynasty pieces. The Brundage Collection is valued at more than $70 million today and is exhibited in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Whatever the intensity of his interest in the Orient, the mystical precepts of Taoism constitute an unlikely credo for the authoritarian rock of ages Brundage always appeared to be. Yet, oddly enough, he flatly rejected Confucianism, because, as he once told a friend, "it teaches a very harsh, moral, restricted approach to life."

Whether Brundage ever got himself in full harmony with the metaphysics of the Tao—which is defined as "the creative principle that orders the Universe," is not known, but while he lived, he did surround himself with an opulence that manifestly was not metaphysical.

Indeed, his penchant for acquisition and luxury might have been considered vulgar had he not displayed a fairly constant sense of good taste. He traveled like a king, paying his own way on Olympic business to the tune of more than $50,000 a year. Limousines whisked him about almost every city he visited, and he often took the royal or presidential suite at four-star hotels. He liked to hobnob with royalty and heads of state, as if they and he were equals. Indeed, his longtime power over the IOC was sometimes thought to lie in the various rajahs, princes, counts and kings whom he recruited for IOC membership. Among his royal allies were King Constantine of Greece, Prince Gholam Pahlavi of Iran (the late shah's half-brother), Sultan Buwano IX of Indonesia, Prince Takeda of Japan and Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium.

Brundage always provided the very best accommodations and amenities for himself and IOC royalty, but his preferences when it came to clothing and food were modest. It was almost laughable to see the imperious head of the IOC in a frayed black suit and greasy derby. He may have stayed in the best hotels, but when he checked in, he carried a briefcase and one small, battered bag containing a few clean shirts.

His eating habits were quite simple, too. He usually preferred fresh fruit at 7:15 a.m., sliced tomatoes at 1 p.m. and meat and vegetables at eight. He stuck to this regimen no matter how late he had been out the night before.

La Pineta, his California estate, was located in Montecito, a lovely wooded suburb of Santa Barbara. His 15-room Spanish-style mansion was secluded behind high stone walls. The five-circled Olympic flag often flew over it. One guest bathroom was lined with zebra skins, and the Brundages sometimes used 12-inch solid jade plates at meals. Although he had given the bulk of his Oriental collection to San Francisco in 1959, he kept a priceless assortment of perhaps 1,000 other items. In September of 1964 a forest fire swept through the area and destroyed the mansion, along with all but 60 of the art objects. The disaster moved Brundage to tears.

Also spared was a small collection of vintage occult comic books. Brundage explained that he had obtained them because of his interest in the supernatural. "When I retire I want to do something with extrasensory perception," he once told a friend. "A lot of work needs to be done in that field."

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