There was a particular day in 1980 which would prove to be a turning point in the life of Thomas Bach, and which did much to shape the subsequent journey that recently culminated in his election as President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
On the day in question Bach, then 26, was part of a delegation of West German athletes that attempted to persuade Chancellor Helmut Schmidt not to join the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Schmidt rejected their pleas, insisting that the country was duty-bound to show solidarity with the USA – its NATO ally – and that sport would have to fall into line.
Other western European countries went on to take part in the Moscow Games, and Schmidt, now a highly respected elder statesman, has long since conceded that the boycott was a mistake. For his part, Bach was deeply influenced by his encounter with the former Chancellor. It further strengthened his resolve to support the athletes’ cause; and it left him convinced that international sport and the Olympic Movement can only flourish if they do not become the instruments of politics. “Sport must remain independent of politics, yet there must always be an awareness that its decisions can also have political consequences,” he contends. It is a credo that was born out of his meeting with Chancellor Schmidt and one which Bach brings with him into his new role as IOC President.
Bach grew up in the small Franconian town of Tauberbischofsheim. He originally wanted to be a footballer, but instead went on to become a first-rate fencer, specialising in the foil and honing his skills at the town’s internationally renowned fencing centre. His crowning achievements in the international arena confirmed him as the consummate team player. At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal he helped Germany secure gold in the team foil; he and his team-mates were also crowned world champions, going on to defend their title the following year. Bach managed to pursue his sporting career while studying law and political science, and in 1983 he graduated magna cum laude. By that stage he was already making a name for himself as an able spokesperson for his fellow athletes in West Germany, a role he would later pursue to such effect at the IOC.
Bach first made his mark on the IOC stage at the 1981 Olympic Congress in the West German spa town of Baden-Baden. Together with his friend, the British Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe, he led the group of athletes who were invited to attend the Congress by then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. He made a real impression on the Congress, with his eloquent contributions and persuasive rhetoric. Indeed, his fellow athletes nicknamed him ‘the Professor’ (Coe was dubbed ‘Shakespeare’). The two men argued that because it is athletes who make the Olympic Games what they are, they should have the right to a voice and a vote in the IOC.
They also called for more financial support for athletes; and demanded a more resolute stance in the fight against doping, which, apart from politicisation, was the greatest threat that sport faced. In the name of the athletes, they called for lifelong bans for doping offences. That same year, Thomas Bach became a founder member of the pioneering new Athletes’ Commission, created by Samaranch to provide a link between athletes and the IOC. As the new millennium beckoned, key reforms were adopted that gave current athletes 15 of the 115 votes at the IOC Session.
In 1991, at the age of 37, Bach, who was by now a successful commercial lawyer, embarked on the next stage of his Olympic career. Willi Daume, who had been at the head of the organisation of the Olympic Games in Munich, ceded his IOC place to make way for his young compatriot.
The following year Bach became a member of the IOC’s Marketing Commission, joining the Juridical Commission the next year, and then taking up the role of Chairman of the Chamber of Appeal of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 1994. He was also tasked with heading the IOC’s Evaluation Commission for the Winter Games in 2002, and in 1995 assumed the same role ahead of the Summer Games in 2004.
Bach was first elected to serve on the IOC Executive Board in 1996, remaining a member of the IOC’s senior body for a total of 15 years. Jacques Rogge was keen to make the most of the German’s expertise, and appointed him chairman of three key IOC bodies – the Juridical Commission, the Sport and Law Commission and the Anti-Doping Disciplinary Commission.
The experience he accrued while serving the IOC was to prove invaluable when, in 2006, he was elected president of the newly formed Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund (DOSB), the result of the merger of the Deutscher Sportbund (DSB) and the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Representing 28 million members, he successfully oversaw the complex merger process and established himself as a figure of considerable influence, building key alliances in the political and commercial arenas.
The experience and connections that Bach has amassed at both national and international level, together with his panoramic knowledge of sport and its role in society, provided Bach with a strong launchpad for his bid to become IOC President. He says that he prepared for the vote on 10 September in Buenos Aires like “an athlete in intensive training”, describing the election process as a “major challenge”. As he noted, “an athlete isn’t used to having to wait for the result”.
When the wait finally ended, it was, said Bach, “one of the most emotional moments of my life”, eclipsing even the moment he was presented with his Olympic gold. “I can barely remember the medal ceremony in 1976. I only really realised the full significance of my victory when I saw the 30,000 people who came to welcome us when we arrived home. But in Buenos Aires the reaction really hit me.”
Thomas Bach intends to make athletes his “number one priority”. He and his wife Claudia have already relocated to Lausanne, where he will not just occupy the desk vacated by Jacques Rogge, but also his apartment, underlining that the Olympic Movement can look forward to continuity as the baton passes to the IOC’s new President.
Thomas Bach Q&A
The ninth President of the International Olympic Committee reveals his thoughts on his new role, the future of the Olympic Games and how to keep athletes at the heart of the Olympic Movement.
Your motto while running for President of the IOC was “unity through diversity”. What did you mean by that?
Above all it means respect for different cultures, religions, social relationships, perceptions and attitudes. The secret to the magic of the Olympic Games is its diversity and universality, both of which have been growing for over 119 years now. They need to be protected and, where possible, extended even more. It’s about our structure and, obviously, the Olympic Games themselves, but also education, culture and social projects. And first and foremost it’s about the athletes.
How do you see your role as President?
The President of the IOC is like the conductor of a worldwide orchestra. He gives the cues and brings the members together in a way that allows everyone to add their own qualities to the whole team. The conductor then has to collect these different contributions together into a harmonic piece. The process requires motivation, discussion, mutual trust and finally, whenever possible, consensus.
Obviously the Olympic Games will be at the forefront of your work. How can you strike a balance between tradition and progress with regards to the Games?
Sustainability needs to be much more than just a buzzword. When you’re talking about sustainability, it’s not just cost reduction, limiting burdens, better compatibility and stronger protection of environmental concerns that you need to consider. A decisive criterion must be that the Olympic Games leave behind a positive legacy. If that doesn’t happen, the IOC will have failed to complete an essential task. In the next few months we plan to devise a holistic concept of sustainability, from bidding for the Games to the organisation to legacy.
As the first Olympic champion to be elected President of the IOC, you have raised expectations regarding one obligation in particular, namely the IOC’s pledge to place athletes at the heart of the Olympic Movement.
The athletes are the lifeblood of the Games and their interests need to be at the forefront of our work. They deserve our trust, our encouragement and of course our protection. In return we can expect their full commitment and enthusiasm, and acceptance of the rules. Their interests need to be more strongly considered, even well before the beginning of the Olympic Games, already during the application procedures. Throughout all of this we need to be asking the question: “How will this affect the athletes?” No decision should be made without taking its impact on the athletes into consideration.
You advocate a zero-tolerance policy towards doping, primarily as a means of protecting clean athletes, and in return insist on their acceptance of the rules. What do you mean by that?
It’s about fairness and respect. The rules are set out clearly and are in fact being made even tougher. The objective of the fight against doping and every other form of manipulation is to protect those athletes who compete fairly. Athletes have to respect the rules in their own interest and they have to respect their competitors. Respect is more than just tolerance.
Watch the announcement ceremony from Buenos Aires