As the 40th anniversary of the Olympic Games Moscow 1980 approaches, President Bach looks back at the period that led up to the decision by West Germany to boycott that edition of the Games. He speaks of how this experience affected him as an athlete, and was a defining moment in his career as an athlete representative and IOC Member.
President Bach, who won a gold medal in fencing at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976, represented West German athletes in the public debate over whether or not the country should join the boycott. In the end, they were one of the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to stay away from the Moscow Games.
This US-led boycott reduced the number of participating nations at the Moscow Games to 80, the lowest number since 1956, as part of a series of measures to protest against the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Four years later, the Soviet Union led a revenge boycott at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, which depleted the field in certain sports.
President Bach recalls the two generations of athletes who lost out on their Olympic dreams due to these boycotts, and the impact of that experience on his own motivation, which still drives him today to give all the clean athletes of the world the chance to participate without any kind of discrimination in the Olympic Games, the only event to unite the world in peaceful competition.
Q. You represented the West German athletes in the public debate around the Moscow 1980 boycott: what are your memories?
A. This was a very tough time, and to make the athletes’ voice heard at this time was almost impossible.
We had to realise that, on the one hand, the athletes were not really heard within the sports organisations. And on the other hand, we had to realise that also the sports organisations, the National Olympic Committees or the IOC, had very limited political influence, to say it diplomatically. I could also say almost none. And there was a very heated debate among the athletes first. In the first meeting, I chaired as what we would consider now to be the chairman of the Athletes’ Commission. I had to offer my resignation if a majority was in favour of a boycott. And then we finally came together and supported the majority of the athletes, because we wanted to go to Moscow.
And then in the public, it was really hurting sometimes. We think we are fighting for a good cause, and then I was insulted as a communist, as somebody who was responsible for the fate of all the people in the Soviet Bloc and so on.
So, it was not easy. And even then the German Chancellor in a meeting ... then at the time initiated the meeting with high-ranking military to show the map where you had tanks, pipelines and everything, and building up a scenario where he then said in the end something like, “And if you wanted to risk there a third World War, then you’d better go to Moscow.” And they also said no western athlete, no western statesman will put his foot on the soil of Moscow for a long time. And two months later, the first ones were already there. So, it was really a tough experience.
Q. How did you feel after the West German decision to join the boycott, and what consequences did it have for you?
A. I was terribly disappointed that the voice of the athletes had not been heard. That I could even make my speech in the final General Assembly of the National Olympic Committee, that nobody really listened any more, that they were bowing to the political pressure coming from all sides, and that they were not ready to stand up for the interests of sport.
And on the other hand, then the reaction was ... it's hurting so much and what can you do so that such a boycott would never happen to future generations of athletes? And at this time, I got the offer from the-then President of the German National Olympic Committee, Willi Daume, whether I would be ready to join the NOC as an individual member.
And he also changed the statutes of the National Olympic Committee so that, as a representative of the athletes, I was then a member of the Executive Board. And this was the motivation why I said yes to him right away.
This should never happen again to future generations of athletes. And this is what still drives me today: to give all the clean athletes of the world the chance to participate in Olympic Games.
Q. Do you remember what you did 40 years ago when the Games were on and you couldn't participate?
A. I don't have much memory. I do not even know whether at the time the Games were broadcast on German TV. I have some images of the Games, but I could not say that I was really following them closely.
Q. Forty years later, do you think the boycott of Moscow 1980 achieved anything?
A. The boycott of Moscow achieved nothing at all. And this has been admitted also by all the major actors, at least in Germany, who were there at the time, who already a couple of months later in conversations told me, "We made a mistake. This was not the right thing to do." And even the-then Chancellor, who was really pressing us at the time in favour of the boycott, it took him until 2008, but then also he finally admitted that it was a mistake.
And you can see the facts. The Soviet army, which was the reason for the boycott, remained in Afghanistan for nine more years. And the athletes were then hit in many countries, not only by the boycott of 1980, but also by the boycott of 1984, which was the revenge boycott.
So you had, in fact, two generations of athletes losing their Olympic dream, having prepared for years for nothing. And being sanctioned and punished for something they had nothing to do with, and that they would never have supported.
So there, anybody who is thinking about a boycott should learn this lesson from history; a sports boycott serves nothing. It's only hurting the athletes, and it's hurting the population of the country because they are losing the joy to share, the pride, the success with their Olympic team.
So what is a boycott for? It's against all the Olympic spirit. It's against all the values we have in sport and what we are standing for in sport.
Q. What is the role of the Olympic Games today?
A. The role of the Olympic Games is to unify the entire world in a peaceful competition, without any discrimination, be it racial, be it social, be it cultural, be it political. And this is what we are achieving.
We have the athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees and from the IOC Refugee Olympic Team united in this competition, living together in one Olympic village, without any kind of discrimination, exchanging opinions, discussing. And in this way, creating an atmosphere of friendship and of understanding, of respect and solidarity. And this is what we call the Olympic spirit.