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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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The following story was written by William Oscar Johnson, based on reports by Jane Bachman, Jack Tobin and Al Stump in California, Johnson and Ray Sons in Chicago, Robert Kroon in Geneva, Franz Spelman in Munich and Anita Verschoth in Moscow.

For members of the International Olympic Committee, the dinner on the night of Aug. 14, 1952 was typically lavish, replete with pomp and self-congratulation, fine wine and rich food. The occasion for the gala at a state villa in Lausanne was the inauguration of the American construction and real estate millionaire, Avery Brundage, as the president of the IOC. Brundage, a former Olympic athlete, gazed sternly through steel-rimmed spectacles at the assemblage, which included a prince, a count and the lord mayor of Lausanne, people with whom he felt perfectly at ease. Then he launched into a sermon scolding mankind for its shortcomings. "We live in a world that is sick socially, politically and economically," thundered Brundage. "It is sick for only one reason—lack of fair play and good sportsmanship in human relations. We must keep the Olympic movement on Olympic heights of idealism, for it will surely die if it is permitted to descend to more sordid levels." He received a nice round of applause as he sat down next to his wife, Elizabeth.

It had been a vintage Brundage performance, a combination of cast-iron idealism, ballooning pomposity and Victorian evangelism. His air of righteousness was pervasive, impenetrable. He was 64 and this was the pinnacle of his life. For the next 20 years, until he retired from the presidency in 1972, he strode the earth as if he were a crowned monarch, and he ruled the Olympic movement as if it were his fiefdom, dictating policy and passing judgment with an arrogance, a stubbornness and an outspokenness that earned him the soubriquet Old Discus Heart. Thirty years ago, an IOC delegate who knew Brundage well said, "His basic trouble is that Avery really doesn't like people, yet he has this compulsion to lead. He's the pope, the rest are heretics. But never forget that he symbolizes a marvelous objective and under pressure he never quits."

But there was another side to Brundage, a dimension so contrary to his public image of rectitude that even today, five years after his death, it seems shocking. After all, Brundage was considered so straitlaced that a barber at Chicago's LaSalle Hotel, which Brundage owned, would censor the stories that were being told as soon as the boss walked into the shop. In retrospect, those stories were probably nothing compared to the ones Avery himself could have provided.

Just five days after the inaugural dinner in Lausanne, a beautiful blonde Finnish woman named Lilian Linnea Wahamaki Dresden, age 33, gave birth to a son in San Mateo, Calif. The child was named Gary Toro Dresden. On his birth certificate, the father's name was withheld—just as it had been from the birth certificate of their first son, Avery Gregory Dresden, born on Aug. 27, 1951. The identity of the father: Avery Brundage.

Brundage admitted that the children were his in a private acknowledgment of paternity given in November of 1951 (after Avery's birth) and June of 1952 (just before Gary's birth). He attested that he requested that his identity be withheld because "showing my name on the certificate as the father may cause undue and adverse publicity in view of my present marital status."

The fact that Brundage had fathered two sons out of wedlock was only one of a number of startling aspects of his long and remarkable life. The sons were not the children of rare indiscretions; Brundage, it turns out, was a philanderer of enormous appetite. Though he seemed to cultivate the image of a staunch Calvinist, he once said, "I think of myself as a Taoist." He assembled one of the world's finest collections of Oriental art, but he spent very little for personal needs. Although he was a self-made millionaire, those closest to his financial affairs say he became a poor businessman who was foolish with his money. When he was 85 he married a 36-year-old German, Mariann Charlotte Katharina Stefanie Princess Reuss. At a trial in Santa Barbara, Calif. last year, it was argued that she "raided and fleeced" the old man, and not long before Brundage died—all but blind from glaucoma—his chief financial adviser, Frederick J. Ruegsegger, told him that he was "bankrupt or near bankrupt."

Clearly Brundage's real life bore little resemblance to his public image. As Monique Berlioux, the director of the IOC, said recently, "To many people, Monsieur Brundage looked like an authoritarian clergyman, a headstrong curmudgeon. It was all a facade. Avery was basically a timid and sensitive man who loved luxury, art, good food and the company of beautiful women."

Whatever he became, his beginnings were markedly unluxurious; he was the kind of man whom Horatio Alger had canonized—the American urchin, tattered and deprived, who rose to thrive in the company of kings and millionaires. Brundage was born in Detroit on Sept. 28, 1887, and when he was six his father, Charles, deserted the family. His mother, Minnie, began working as a seamstress in Chicago, where Avery was raised by various relatives. "I never saw my father after he left," Brundage once recalled bitterly. "He drank, went downhill and got himself killed in a car crash."

Brundage became a relentlessly righteous young man, a crusader against drunks and drinking. At the University of Illinois, where Brundage got a civil engineering degree in 1909, he was something of an outcast in his fraternity because he refused to take a drink. "I was not popular with the larkers," he said, "but that bothered me very little." Later he would allow himself an occasional glass of wine or a beer or a daiquiri, his favorite cocktail.

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