David Owen ©ITG

Fifty years ago this week, Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sat down and composed a long letter to his colleagues on the IOC Executive Board.

Marked "highly confidential", the missive runs over six closely-typed A4 pages. It must rank for my money among the most remarkable texts set down by a serving Olympic leader.

Brundage did not get where he was in March 1969 by beating about the bush. Characteristically, he gets straight to the point.

Paragraph one reads as follows:

"The shockingly gloomy pictures painted, not altogether without reason, by several members at the last meeting of the Executive Board indicate the urgent need for drastic action if the Olympic Movement is to be saved.

"Obviously we, the IOC, have been remiss or the decadence would not have progressed to this point. After the graphic exposition by our own members which tardily reflects the views repeated almost daily by the public and the press, we can no longer plead that we are unaware that the Olympic Movement is in great danger. 

"The question now is, are we going to fight to arrest this decline and to restore and preserve Olympic ideals, or are we going to yield to the promoters and the politicians and watch the Olympic Movement disintegrate and collapse entirely. The object of this letter is to analyze what is wrong and to suggest remedial measures."

Whoa. What can have provoked such an opening salvo?

There is a hint in the dismissive reference to "the promoters and the politicians". That last Executive Board meeting featured a lecture by Brundage on "astonishing public declarations" made by Marc Hodler, then President of the International Ski Federation (FIS).

Avery Brundage penned a fascinating
Avery Brundage penned a fascinating "highly confidential" letter ©Getty Images

It appeared that the FIS (shock, horror!) was "authorising competitors to advertise the equipment they are using and ski resorts, and openly to receive a salary for giving lessons". That, Brundage huffed, was "a challenge thrown down to the IOC" that would "very certainly affect the Winter Olympics".

This then is, in part, a last-ditch defence of the amateur ideal that was always a core tenet of Brundage's sports philosophy and of which he remained, in the early years of his ninth decade, the high priest.

"The success of the Olympic Games depends on two basic principles," the letter to his colleagues asserts, "and no deviation from them can be permitted if the Games are to be preserved." The first of these principles is that the Games "must be confined to amateurs".

How quaint this seems today. It is not the only thing troubling the elderly American, however. Indeed, the first concern he spells out in his extended cri de coeur has a much more contemporary ring to it.

"For more than 20 years practically everyone has agreed," he says, "that the Olympic Games have become too big and too expensive." Sound familiar?

And yet, he goes on, "instead of simplifying…we keep adding both events and sports to the programme while others clamor to be added."

"In several sports," he argues, "there are events so similar that one outstanding competitor can and does win four or five medals. This obviously detracts from the value of an Olympic medal." Are you listening Michael Phelps?

There remains the second "basic principle" on which the success of the Games, for Brundage at least, depended. This also still carries resonance today, even if Brundage's interpretation of it, on the eve of a decade in which apartheid and Cold War politics would place enormous strains on the Movement, appears to me profoundly misguided.

This second indispensable principle was that "no discrimination can be permitted against any country or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation".

Another section of the letter covers issues of attachment and personal integrity that, again, are still debated today.

"A policy must be adopted about accepting expensive presents of one kind or another," Brundage writes, adding rather snobbishly: "It is not dignified to request discounts, special rates or concessions."

He also feels that "active Government officials or individuals occupying political positions should not be members of the IOC, nor should officials of International Federations."

He goes on, in the section of the letter with which it is perhaps most easy today to concur: "The strength of the IOC…has always been the freedom, the independence, the neutrality, and the incorruptibility of its members. These characteristics must be maintained.

"Unfortunately there are large sections of the world today where the form of Government precludes full independence of its citizens. Since the last War, in an effort to unite the world of sport, we have deliberately waived this requirement in some instances. However, there must never be more than ten per cent or 15 per cent of the members who lack independence."

Avery Brundage remained committed to amateurism at the Olympics ©Getty Images
Avery Brundage remained committed to amateurism at the Olympics ©Getty Images

It is worth recalling in passing that Konstantin Andrianov, the first IOC member from the Soviet Union, was the IOC's first vice-president at the time, and hence a recipient of the Brundage letter.

For Brundage, the Olympic Movement had what he termed a "double objective; first, to encourage the development of the complete man in the sense of the Golden Age of Ancient Greece and second, to promote international respect and friendship." Given modern notions of gender equality, this seems, to say the least, clumsily expressed, even if one can agree with the overall sentiment.

The Games, it might surprise you to learn, "were not created to entertain the public, to make money, or to indicate the national prestige of the participating countries," or so Brundage asserts.

"Since we live in materialistic times," he says, "one of the penalties of our success is more and more pressure from commercial and political sources. We must without delay take the steps necessary to arrest the decline in prestige and public favor and to enforce strict adherence to [you guessed it] Olympic principles."

Then, in a final rallying call to "protect the dignity of sport" and "combat all the nonsense printed about changed times", Brundage concludes with what seems to me a demonstrably false assertion.

"No-one," he says, "has ever been prevented from participating in the Olympic Games by poverty."

History, it is fair to say, has not been kind to Brundage. Even so, when I stumbled upon the letter, it made me wonder how anyone at the head of such an important organisation - particularly someone who had been confirmed in their post less than five months earlier - could be so wide of the mark in assessing the big strategic issues of the day.

Granted, I was reacting with the benefit of half a century of hindsight. But Brundage at this point was an old man. He had been in situ since 1952. His time was past, or should have been. The letter represents a powerful exhibit, now as then, in the argument for term limits within sports bodies.

The text flags up the flaws in its own analysis. With regard to discrimination, Brundage writes:

"Rule Nr 1 states that in the Olympic Games 'no discrimination is allowed against any country [tellingly, these last two words are underlined] or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation'. This means that contestants of all religious faiths, political affiliations or racial heritage are welcomed, and it also means the same thing for countries. In other words, a country cannot be barred because it is Nazi, fascist, communist or apartheid. We deal only with [National Olympic Committees] and their actions."

I can scarcely believe that Brundage felt the need to resort to the N-word, even in correspondence intended only for his closest colleagues, in 1969. It is blindingly obvious that Government by at least two of these four creeds entails discrimination of the most odious and harrowing kind against some of the population.

Avery Brundage, centre, said a country cannot be barred because it is Nazi, fascist, communist or apartheid ©Getty Images
Avery Brundage, centre, said a country cannot be barred because it is Nazi, fascist, communist or apartheid ©Getty Images

Regarding amateurism, Brundage's prime justification for the status quo in his letter is financial. "They [the Games] must depend on amateurs," he writes, "since they could hardly be staged at all if those connected with them, competitors and officials had to be paid". 

The IOC in 1969, it is true, was far from the multi-billion-dollar colossus it has become today. And even 50 years later, Olympic champions - though usually paid (in some cases extraordinarily well) for their other feats - do not win prize money, unless offered unofficially by a sponsor or their grateful National Government.

But the Movement had just struck oil. The television rights bonanza was beginning to kick in. Having generated $1.6 million (£1.2 million/€1.4 million) from broadcasts of Tokyo 1964, the sum gushed to $9.8 million (£7.6 million/€8.7 million) four years later from the Summer Games in Mexico City and to $17.8 million (£13.8 million/€15.7 million) from Munich in the last year of Brundage's IOC Presidency. 

Such figures are derisory compared to the value attached to broadcasting rights fees today. But you have to start somewhere. And this amounted to a highly impressive 11-fold increase in the space of eight years.

Did Brundage, a wealthy self-made businessman, really not see that broadcast rights had the capacity to end the IOC's then very real financial concerns, even if it would have taken a crystal ball of superior stamp to predict how a future IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, would skilfully exploit them to bring the unruly International Sports Federations to heel? It seems unlikely. Then again, perhaps his attachment to the amateur ethos was so deep it rendered him selectively blind.