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BEHIND THE RINGS: Inside the Olympic Movement

Olympic Panel's Leadership Ranks Lose Their Regal Bearing

Culture: While the number of athletes on the international committee has soared, the presence of titled royals has sharply declined.

August 06, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTE CARLO — Think back to Calgary and 1988. It's reggae time at the Winter Olympics.

The four-man Jamaican bobsled crew careens into Olympic history with a spectacular crash that slams the riders' heads against the wall of the icy track.

The two-man team at least finishes. Hobbin' and a-bobbin', as the team's theme song goes, it takes 30th place. Out of 38.

And who was the other curiosity at the bobsled course, the guy who didn't subsequently get a Disney movie made about his exploits? Who drove a two-man sled and placed 25th--ahead of the Jamaicans?

That would be His Serene Highness, Crown Prince Albert of Monaco. Monarch in waiting. Son of Prince Rainier III of the Grimaldi dynasty and the late American movie icon Grace Kelly. Perhaps Europe's most eligible bachelor.

And he is an International Olympic Committee member--the most visible carry-over of the royalist tradition that has marked the IOC since its inception.

Within IOC circles, however, Albert chooses none of these labels to identify himself.

"I'm there as an athlete," he said, an Olympic bobsledder who has competed in four Games since 1988 and who has his eyes on Salt Lake City in 2002.

"I don't see myself as a prince. Or as a royal. Whatever title. I kind of leave my title behind," said the soft-spoken 42-year-old, who stays in the Olympic village and mingles with fellow competitors.

That Albert can, as he put it, "be just Albert" speaks volumes about the transformation of the membership during the 20 years that Juan Antonio Samaranch has been atop the IOC.

While the number of Olympic athletes on the IOC has soared to three dozen, the contingent of titled royals has declined by nearly half. Likewise, the royal leadership role within the institution has diminished, a significant change.

The roster of the first 100 members--who joined between 1894 and 1921--shows eight princes, seven barons, 20 counts, three dukes, two marquises, one lord and four sirs.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies the courtly and colorful airs of the IOC in its formative years than British Lord David George Brownlow Cecil Burghley, an IOC member from 1933 to 1981 and, before that, a gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in Amsterdam in 1928.

Burghley is reputed to have been the first to place matchboxes on hurdles and practice knocking the boxes over with his lead foot. A scene in the 1981 film "Chariots of Fire," inspired in part by his feats, shows glasses of champagne on the hurdles. But as his daughter, Lady Victoria Leatham, once said, "He was never one to waste champagne."

Correspondence from his lordship bears testimony to the sort of organization he served for nearly 50 years.

In a 1956 letter to the American IOC President Avery Brundage, Burghley suggested a minimum dress code of dark suits at the opening ceremony but opined that top hats and tail coats should be worn as a courtesy to the king of Sweden.

"This is particularly essential from our point of view," Burghley wrote, "as our Queen will be there, and all the leading citizens of Sweden will be wearing top hats and tail coats."

For many years, only the titled or the wealthy could belong to the IOC because it took a great deal of time and money to set off for the Games or to meetings in many of the world's most desirable locales.

In 1947, John Jewett Garland--one of the many influential Olympic figures from Los Angeles--set off in mid-May for an IOC session in Stockholm. Garland, who would join the IOC a year later, went on behalf of the "Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games."

After three days on a train, Garland arrived in New York. Then he sailed to London on the Queen Elizabeth. In London, he checked into the Ritz hotel for a week before making his way to Stockholm by way of Copenhagen.

After 11 days in Sweden, he was off to the Ritz in Paris for 10 days. Then back aboard ship to New York and another cross-country train to L.A.--or so it all appears on his itinerary.

"So who was on the IOC?" asks John Argue, who was instrumental in L.A.'s winning bid for the 1984 Games. "People who could afford that."

Shortly after taking over, Samaranch engineered a rules change so that members no longer had to pay their own way to meetings.

That by itself opened up membership to a new breed: lawyers, doctors, military types and businesspeople.

In bringing in a new class of members and adding to the perks, some critics say, Samaranch inadvertently opened the door to corruption. The IOC was shaken last year by revelations that Salt Lake's winning 2002 bid included cash, gifts and other favors for IOC members.

As Albert pointed out at the Monaco Olympic Committee offices in the principality's Stade Louis II, a stadium named for his great-grandfather, no one from Salt Lake--or anywhere else--ever tried to bribe him. What, precisely, would it take to influence a prince who lives in a castle overlooking the Mediterranean and is heir to one of Europe's great fortunes?

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