Thomas Bach linked up with Matthias Behr, Harald Hein and Klaus Reichert at Montreal 1976 to win Olympic gold for the Federal Republic of Germany in the men’s team foil competition. Forty years on, the IOC President casts his mind back to what was an emotional victory.
Born in Würzburg, Bavaria, Thomas Bach was just five when he began to show promise in the foil. He took up the discipline at the Fecht-Club in nearby Tauberbischofsheim, which has since become one of the world’s most famous fencing clubs, having produced no less than 228 European and world championship and 21 Olympic medallists.
Bach’s own development mirrored that of his club. In 1971, aged 17, he won bronze at the Junior World Championships in Chicago (USA). Two years later he was representing the Federal Republic of Germany at senior level and returned from the 1973 FIE World Championships in Gothenburg (SWE) with a team foil silver, the West Germans having lost out in the final to the Soviet Union.
Bach trod the international stage again at Montreal 1976, stepping out as part of the Federal Republic of Germany team at the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XX Olympiad.
“It was, of course, an overwhelming moment to be there among all these athletes and as a fencer who was not used to big stadia of 60.000, 70.000 spectators,” he recalls. “To enter such a stadium with all the athletes of the world, this was overwhelming.”
A week later, Bach and his West German team-mates Matthias Behr, Harald Hein and Klaus Reichert began their quest for Olympic glory. They were certainly not fancied to win gold, with all four having been eliminated in the group phase of the individual competition.
And there you see that an Olympic gold medal is not only for an athlete. It’s something beyond winning an Olympic competition, but it’s the same feeling shared by a wider public. This is what makes the Olympic Games and the Olympic gold medal so unique.Thomas Bach IOC President
However, as a team, it seemed they were greater than the sum of their parts. “We were really, highly motivated,” explains Bach. “We had high expectations but we were extremely focused on the competition. We were slightly outsiders. I think the experts thought we may win a medal if everything is going well."
“I was with my closest friend and team-mate and we looked into each other’s eyes and said: ‘OK, we’re going to make it. Today is our day. You want to do your personal best. You want to contribute the most you can to the success of the team. This is how you approach it, and you’re extremely focused and take it step by step.”
After an impressive group-phase in which they suffered a solitary defeat to Italy, Bach and his colleagues swept to a 9-4 victory over defending champions Poland in the quarter-finals. Semi-final opponents USSR were then dispatched 9-7, with the West Germans kicking on to record a 9-6 final win over an Italy quartet featuring individual gold medallist Fabio Del Zotto. Bach had a big part to play in their run to Olympic gold, winning three bouts in the final.
Reflecting on their inspired charge to glory, he said: “It’s always very special in a team, because everybody is winning and everybody is losing, and this brings you together very closely, and it’s even more important in a sport like fencing, which is originally an individual sport.”
With victory and the gold medal secured, Bach admitted to experiencing contrasting emotions: “It was a final with high tension, but with a good result. The moment when it happened was strange. On the one hand, it’s absolute joy, and on the other hand you’re so tired that it feels a little bit like falling into a black hole.
“All the tension all of a sudden is going away, and you realise this tension has not been built just before this final. This is a tension that you have maybe for months building.”
The homecoming was also an emotional moment for Bach, as he explained: “We came from a little town of 11,000 inhabitants. When we came home, 30,000 people were waiting for us. The whole city was there. When I talk about it, it still gives me goose bumps. And there you see that an Olympic gold medal is not only for an athlete. It’s something beyond winning an Olympic competition, but it’s the same feeling shared by a wider public. This is what makes the Olympic Games and the Olympic gold medal so unique.”
A champion’s career
The same quartet went on to win men’s team foil gold at the 1977 Worlds in Buenos Aires, once again beating the Soviets in the semis and Del Zotto’s Italians in the final. Also that year, Bach won the German individual title, which he successfully defended in 1978, when he also won team gold at the European Cup of Champions.
Following a world championship bronze in Melbourne 1979, Bach set about preparing for his team’s Olympic title defence at Moscow 1980. When his country started discussing a boycott of the Moscow Games, Bach, presenting his case at the very highest levels, made clear his opposition to this decision which was finally taken in spring 1980. He then called time on his sporting career at the age of 27, in autumn 1980.
Prompted by the then International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, he became a founder member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, which met for the first time at the 1981 Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden.
Bach remained on the Athletes’ Commission through to the end of the 1980s, before becoming, at the age of only 37, one of the IOC’s youngest members.He went on to gain a seat on the IOC’s Executive Board in 1996 and became its vice-president four years later. Then, on 10 September 2013, he was elected IOC President at the 125th Session, held in the Argentinian capital, where he had won the team foil world title 36 years earlier.