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 Schöbel, 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."
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.