Swim Champ Monique Berlioux Pulls Her Weight as Director of This Year's Olympic Games

updated 02/20/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1984 01:00AM

Miss Congeniality she's not. As director of the International Olympic Committee, Monique Berlioux may be the most powerful woman in amateur sports. The formidable demands of coordinating the Olympic Games in Sarajevo (this month) and in Los Angeles (this summer) have won her more respect than popularity. Imperious as a commandant, with a proclivity for peppery opinions, Berlioux, 58, is a harsh taskmaster, an expert administrator and a fierce negotiator. Her associates call her "Madame." Indeed, to some, the French-born former swim champion is the éminence grim at IOC's Victorian headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Sport teaches you to be strong, tough and fair," she says. "It teaches you to fight, but you have to last a little longer to win."

Her reputation for toughness nearly brought about her dismissal from the IOC in 1972 when Lord Killanin succeeded the autocratic Avery Brundage as president. "I had reservations about whether Monique and I could work together," admits Lord Killanin, "but I soon learned that when others complained about her, it usually meant she was doing her job, being tough and demanding to get things done."

Today as IOC director—a job paying $100,000 plus—Berlioux needs all the energy she can muster. She presides over a staff of 67, travels about 250,000 miles annually (she is fluent in five languages) and is responsible for solving logistical problems for 11,400 athletes and an 8,000-member press corps. She also negotiated worldwide television rights for the 1984 Winter and Summer Olympics, which this year went to ABC for $316.5 million.

Though she has been married 28 years to French novelist Serge Groussard, he chooses to remain in Paris while she lives in the hills above Lausanne. He accompanies her to the Games every four years, and they see one another on occasional weekends. "We married Feb. 29, so our anniversary is every four years—Olympic years," says Monique. "If he had not supported me or if we had produced babies, I would not be where I am today." After two miscarriages early in her marriage, Berlioux was left unable to bear children.

She got her early aquatic training from her mother, a swim coach in Paris. "She thought it was better to swim after school than to play," Monique remembers. "If my sister and I were one minute late for swimming, she would scream." At 12, Berlioux won the 1937 French championship in the 100-meter backstroke, the first of 40 titles she would earn over the next decade. During World War II she continued her laps, ignoring the German officers who swam in the same pool.

She retired from swimming at 26 and plunged into newspaper journalism before taking a job with the Ministry of Youth and Sport. To relieve her boredom, she wrote two historical volumes on the Olympics, then proposed that the IOC finance a documentary film based on one of them. The IOC rejected her idea but hired her as press assistant to the director. Four years later, in 1971, she replaced him.

Historically a sparkling showcase of athletic prowess, Olympic Games have been tarnished recently by the unpredictable: violent riots (Mexico 1968), terrorist attacks (Munich 1972), walkouts (Montreal 1976) and boycotts (Moscow 1980). The last was a bitter disappointment. "President Carter was running for reelection, and being tough with the Russians was his last political card. It certainly didn't win him any votes among athletes," Berlioux says. "You can imagine how disgusted we were months later when President Carter was photographed wearing the Olympic jogging suit, which his team would have worn."

This year Berlioux has her fingers crossed. "We have spent almost eight years working with organizers on this year's Games, which will be seen by almost 2 billion people," she says. "We can only hope for the best."

As a woman who is often dressed by Hermes and bejeweled by Cartier, Madame Berlioux is not all prickles. She spoils her staff with presents and parties. And although she lives year-round in Switzerland, she remains an ardent Francophile. "When I first took the job in Lausanne," she recalls, "I would fly to Paris each weekend, just to breathe." Her Swiss duplex is littered with memorabilia, including a treasured collection of Olympic torches.

Berlioux's contract expires after the 1988 Games in Seoul and Calgary. By then she will be 62, but she isn't likely to retire willingly. "My mother didn't stop coaching until she was 75, and she complains she quit too soon," Monique says pointedly. "So don't put me out to pasture prematurely."

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