On Olympics: A Seat Near Hitler, and Other Olympic Tales From the Baron, 105

Jeré Longman
Jeré Longman
ON OLYMPICS

VADUZ, Liechtenstein — Balloons still bobbed on the stairway, more than two weeks after the 105th birthday celebration for Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein. He attributed his longevity to the succor of honey and Ovaltine. Still, his body had become a husk but not his mind. It whirred and clicked like the monitor at his bedside.

“Where is your recorder?” the Baron asked me. “Be sure it is on.”

I went to see him last week because of a mix-up. The Baron had been erroneously considered by some researchers and Olympic officials as the oldest living Winter Olympian. Turns out, it was a case of mistaken identity. It was just another extravagant twist in a life full of them. And I wanted to hear more.

He agreed to tell — for the last time, he insisted — his life story, which included bringing Olympic sports to the principality of Liechtenstein, which connects Switzerland and Austria like a hyphen. With a population of less than 38,000, it is the smallest country to win an Olympic medal. There have been nine, all in Alpine skiing, and there are hopes that the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea will bring Liechtenstein’s first podium finish in three decades.

It was the Baron’s idea, in 1934, to start an Olympic committee in Liechtenstein. This was not yet 40 years after the modern Games were founded on the clashing, upper-class sensibilities of noble competition, amateurism and exclusion of women.

The Baron had lived an aristocratic life through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two World Wars and the Russian Revolution. He was a patron of the arts and had sat as a reporter in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin not so far from Hitler. And he wanted to talk about it.

It was nearly 2 p.m. on a cloudy afternoon. . He was not in a hurry.

“At 7 o’clock we will say goodbye,” the Baron said.

After an hour, his caretaker intervened. He needed rest, doctor’s orders. Still, the Baron had so many stories to tell: How he found and promoted the country’s first two Olympic skiers. And tweaked the design of Liechtenstein’s national flag. And attended 16 Winter and Summer Games as a sportswriter, official and coach.

There were other stories he did not have time for that day, that others would tell for him: His birth on Sept. 14, 1912, to a wealthy family in what is now the grassy steppe of Ukraine. His family’s nature preserve of zebras, camels and ostriches, which he called “the world’s largest zoo.” The family’s acquaintance with the Romanovs, the dynasty that ruled Russia for more than 300 years. The message sent to a cousin and literary matchmaker, Vladimir Nabokov, to find the Baron a wife.

The Baron was never an Olympic athlete. He was never president of the Liechtenstein Olympic Committee. But he supported the Games with his money and with such enthusiasm that, in the telling of the country’s Olympic officials, the Baron piled Liechtenstein’s team for the 1956 Winter Games into his luxury car and drove it to the competition in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

“I think that’s really funny to drive to the Olympics in a Rolls-Royce or something,” said Beat Wachter, secretary general of the Liechtenstein Olympic Committee. That frivolity aside, he added, “The Baron is maybe the most important figure in our Olympic history.”

On this October afternoon, the Baron lay in his bed wearing blue pajamas, his hair wavy and long in the back, his eyes sharp, his voice thin but eager. He was surrounded by paintings and photographs and a medal he had received in February from the International Olympic Committee.

A newspaper lay on the floor near his bed. Research for his autobiography, published in multiple languages, stood in a stack more than two feet high near the door.

He wanted to start from the beginning.

He was born in Russia, and his family fled to Germany, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. One book, “The Romanovs: The Final Chapter,” described a scene from 1992, with the Baron reaching into his pocket and peeling off hundred-dollar bills to help financially-strapped researchers identify the remains of members of the executed family.

According to Forbes, the Baron also offered a $5 million reward to anyone who could locate the Amber Room, a chamber of gold and amber in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg that was once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and was looted by the Nazis.

The Baron, too, is credited with starting Liechtenstein’s tourism industry, making hundreds of photos of the principality that he transferred to postcards, scarves and books at his souvenir shop in Vaduz, the capital. Tour buses stopped daily in front of his shop, he told International Life magazine, and he boarded with a microphone, enticing the visitors inside by speaking to them in six languages.

Sport, though, was perhaps his most consuming interest. “He said it’s the most passionate thing you can do,” said Isabel Fehr, the president of Liechtenstein’s Olympic committee. “Sport is his DNA.”

In 1932, at age 20, the Baron won a French cycling championship for students. Two years later, he visited an aunt in Lausanne, Switzerland. Next door was a jewelry store owned by the president of the Swiss Olympic Committee. Did Liechtenstein have an Olympic committee? the Baron was asked. Why not?

He returned home, went into the mountains, and found a pair of skiers named Hubert Negele and Franz Schadler. One was a forest ranger, the other a weekend skier. Neither had ever competed in a race.

Liechtenstein made its Olympic debut at the 1936 Winter Games in nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The Baron attended as a correspondent for L’Auto, a French predecessor to L’Equipe, a leading sports newspaper. Negele finished 51st in the downhill and Schadler 54th. Six downhill skiers were even slower. The Baron had his story.

“There were 20 minutes’ difference” – actually about 18 – “between the first and the last,” the Baron said. “It was no good.”

A bobsledder named Eduard von Falz-Fein also competed for Lichtenstein in those Games. This led to confusion, apparently even in the files of the International Olympic Committee.

As it turns out, the two similarly-named men were cousins, born not three months apart. The bobsledder was Eduard Theodor von Falz-Fein, who died June 17, 1974. The Baron is Eduard Oleg Alexandrowitsch von Falz-Fein.

The mystery was resolved, once and for all, by an interview that David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, conducted with the Baron in April.

“He never said he competed,” Wallechinsky said. “It’s a natural confusion that developed because they had the same name.” (The oldest living Olympian appears to be John Lysak, an American kayaker who is 103 and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.)

The Baron’s most visible and enduring impact on Liechtenstein came at the 1936 Summer Games, presided over by Hitler in Berlin. Reporters were placed behind Hitler at the Olympic Stadium as a matter of security, the Baron said.

“The Germans thought, if we put the press table behind Hitler nobody will put a bomb, so everything is safe,” the Baron said.

A couple of days earlier, while the Baron wandered the Olympic Village for a story, he noticed a flag similar to Liechtenstein’s, with its horizontal blue and red bands. It must be a mistake, he thought. It was not an error. The flag belonged to Haiti, which participated in the opening ceremony but did not compete.

The Baron phoned the government of Liechtenstein. Its flag must be altered before the opening ceremony, he said. Impossible, he was told. After the Games, Liechtenstein did change its flag — adding a crown in the blue field, a simple solution devised by the Baron.

“I suggested not to make it too expensive — only to put the crown,” the Baron said. “That way, you would not have to change the whole flag.”

In 1974, Liechtenstein had its first big international skiing success when Hanni Wenzel, then 17, won the women’s slalom at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. When Wenzel returned home, the Baron held a party at his home and hired a popular Austrian-Swiss singer, Udo Jurgens, to croon “It Was a Very Good Year” for her.

“He’s done so much for Liechtenstein,” Wenzel said.

At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., Wenzel won the slalom and giant slalom. They were her country’s first — and still only — gold medals. Her daughter, Tina Weirather, second in the super-G at the 2017 world skiing championships, will seek to bring Liechtenstein its first Olympic medal in 30 years at the 2018 Winter Games in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The Baron follows Weirather’s career closely. And if she wins at the Olympics, who knows, perhaps he will hire someone to sing for her as he once did for her mother.

“We have been waiting since 1988 for a medal,” said Wachter of the Lichtenstein Olympic Committee. “This is a very important Olympics for us. It’s so motivating and fascinating that the man who started the Olympic movement in Liechtenstein is still alive after 105 years and is still interested and standing behind the team. He’s living history.”