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Henri, Count de Baillet-Latour

Biographical information

TypeIOC member
SexMale
Full nameHenri•de Baillet-Latour
Used nameHenri, Count•de Baillet-Latour
Born1 March 1876 in Antwerpen (Antwerp) (BEL)
Died6 January 1942 in Bruxelles (Brussels) (BEL)
Title(s)Count
NOC(s) Belgium

Biography

Henri, Count de Baillet-Latour succeeded Pierre de Coubertin to become the 3rd President of the International Olympic Committee. Baillet-Latour was born on 1 March 1876 in Antwerp. A wealthy aristocrat, Baillet-Latour fit well with Coubertin’s image of the IOC as a gentleman’s club and he was elected to IOC membership in 1903. His first significant involvement in Olympic matters came in 1905, when Baillet-Latour helped organize the 3rd Olympic Congress, held in Brussels. Shortly thereafter, Baillet-Latour organized Belgian participation in the 1908 London and 1912 Stockholm Games.

When World War I ensued in 1914, Olympic Games could not be held in 1916 in Berlin, as planned. The Belgian people suffered terribly during the war, as much of it was fought on their land. Prior to the war, Belgium had made entreaties about the possibility of hosting an Olympic Games, and in 1919, ostensibly as a reward for their suffering during the war, Antwerp, Belgium, was awarded the right to host the 1920 Olympic Games. With only one year to prepare, and much of the nation impoverished and hungry by war deprivations, the 1920 Olympic Games were austere, at best, but they succeeded and they did so because of the efforts of the head of the Organizing Committee, Count de Baillet-Latour.

The following year (1921) Baillet-Latour was rewarded with a nomination to the IOC’s newly formed five-member Executive Board. In 1923, he was elected President of the Belgian Olympic Committee, a post he would hold for 19 years until his death. And at the 1925 Olympic Congress in Praha, following two rounds of balloting, Baillet-Latour was elected to an eight-year term as President, to succeed the retiring Coubertin.

Four main problems were addressed by Baillet-Latour during his reign as IOC President: the Olympic Program, women in the Olympics, the definition of amateurism, and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Of these, the Olympic Program and the amateurism problem were truly only extensions of problems that had troubled the Olympic Movement since its inception, and problems that continued into the 21st century. Women’s sport at the Olympics was the problem first faced by Baillet-Latour.

Pierre de Coubertin had been somewhat opposed to women’s sports on the Olympic Program, although women had gradually made their way in certain sports during his presidency – swimming, fencing, and tennis, primarily. Baillet-Latour shared some of Coubertin’s concerns and in 1929 proposed to the IOC Executive Board that women be limited to the “strictly feminine” sports of figure skating, gymnastics, swimming, and tennis. By then, women had also competed at the Olympics in fencing, and with some controversy in 1928, in track & field athletics. At the 1930 Olympic Congress, Baillet-Latour proposed that women’s events in track & field athletics be eliminated from the program of the 1932 Olympic Games. The IAAF responded by proposing a special Congress of their own in which they would vote to eliminate men’s track & field from the Olympic Program, which put an end to any effort to remove women’s athletics from the Program.

In 1931, the fateful decision was made to award the 1936 Olympics to Berlin and the 1936 Olympic Winter Games to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. At the time, the decision seemed benign enough, but Adolf Hitler took power in Germany on 17 January 1933, which would cause numerous problems, not least with the 1936 Olympics.

As is well known, Hitler ran a totalitarian state with pogroms against Jews and other “undesirables,” including Blacks and Gypsies. When his programs became known to the world, a significant movement began proposing that the world boycott the 1936 Olympic Games. This became an issue for the IOC which wished to continue to hold the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. Baillet-Latour was concerned from the start about Hitler’s intentions and intervened in 1933 to force the Nazis to retain the two principal organizers of the Berlin Games – Theodor Lewald and Karl Ritter von Halt – after it was disclosed that they had Jewish ancestry.

In the United States, calls for a boycott became more strident as the Games neared. Especially problematic for the IOC was Hitler’s refusal to allow Jewish athletes to compete for Germany, or at least have the right to compete. After pressing the Germans on this matter, Baillet-Latour was assured that all Germans, including Jews, would have equal opportunities to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. This never occurred. In the end, Germany acquiesced by placing one Jew on both its 1936 Winter and Summer teams – ice hockey player Rudi Ball and fencer Helene Mayer. Gretel Bergmann, a world class high jumper, was denied the opportunity to train and compete fairly for the team.

As the United States called for a boycott, an important Olympic voice joined the chorus, that of IOC Member Ernest Lee Jahncke, who had served in the Herbert Hoover administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. On 27 November 1935, Jahncke published an appeal in The New York Times asking Baillet-Latour to meet his “duty to hold the Nazi sports authorities accountable for the violation of their pledges … Let me beseech you to seize the opportunity to take your rightful place in the history of the Olympics alongside of de Coubertin instead of Hitler.” Baillet-Latour was furious at this public airing of the IOC’s business, especially as he had only recently visited Hitler in Berlin, who had assured him that the charges against Germany were false. Jahncke suffered for his stand in the eyes of the IOC. He was subsequently removed from the Committee, and replaced by Avery Brundage, then AAU President, and a sports administrator who had vigorously opposed the idea of a boycott of the Berlin Olympics.

When the 1936 Olympic Winter Games were held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Baillet-Latour had to know that some of his worst fears had been realized when he saw signs on his trip into the town that read, “Dogs and Jews Not Allowed.” Baillet-Latour bravely demanded to meet with Hitler and insisted that the signs be removed. Legend has it that the conversation went thusly: Hitler – “Sir, when you are a guest in a person’s home, do you not honor the ways of the people who live there?” Baillet-Latour – “Yes, that is true. But when the flag of Olympia flies over the area, it becomes sacred Olympic territory, and then it is my home.” Whether the conversation actually occurred in that manner will never be known, but the signs were removed, to Baillet-Latour’s credit.

And Count de Baillet-Latour knew with whom he was dealing. As the Berlin Games wound down, Baillet-Latour attended a grand dinner given by Hitler for Olympic notables and sat next to the wife of the Nazi Youth leader, Baldur von Schirach. When she remarked on how well “the great festival of youth, peace and reconciliation” was going, Baillet-Latour replied, “May God preserve you from your illusions, madame! If you ask me, we shall have war in three years.” He was correct.

The 1940 Olympic Games and 1940 Olympic Winter Games could not be held, but Baillet-Latour never lived long enough to see the full effects of the war that ended them. Henri, Count de Baillet-Latour died of a stroke in Brussels on 6 January 1942.

Organization roles

Role Organization Tenure Details
President Comité Belge des Jeux de la VIIème Olympiade Representing Belgium    
Member International Olympic Committee 1903—1942 Representing Belgium    
Vice-President International Olympic Committee 1921—1925 Representing Belgium    
President Belgisch Olympisch en Interfederaal Comité 1923—1942 Representing Belgium    
President International Olympic Committee 1925—1942 Representing Belgium    
Honorary President (posthumously) International Olympic Committee 1953—1953 Representing Belgium    

Special Notes