Olympics: Moscow Games boycott lit Thomas Bach's International Olympic Committee fuse

Had the West not boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Thomas Bach would be enjoying the fruits of a successful law practice in Germany -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Had the West not boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Thomas Bach would be enjoying the fruits of a successful law practice in Germany -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Had the West not boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Thomas Bach would be enjoying the fruits of a successful law practice in Germany.

Instead, on Tuesday he was elected as International Olympic Committee (IOC) president - the most powerful political position in sport and the sporting equivalent of being head of the United Nations.

The 59-year-old - a gold medallist in the 1976 Olympics in the team foil fencing competition - has a hard act to to follow in succeeding Jacques Rogge after his 12 years at the helm.

Bach's desire to become involved in sports politics, he told AFP in August, was provoked by the dismissive way politicians at the time treated the athletes' concerns over the boycott brought about because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Bach - the first Olympic gold medallist to become IOC president - was along with his team-mates attempting to qualify for the Games and defend the Olympic title while the debate raged on over whether to join the boycott or not.

"In 1980 I was the spokesman for all the West German athletes and fought really hard for us to be able to compete in Moscow," he said. "However, because of huge government pressure the National Olympic Committee (NOC) gave in and boycotted the Games.

"This for me was the turning point from being an athlete to entering sports politics. I accepted to become a member of the German NOC because I wanted to avoid the situation where a future generation of athletes would suffer in the same way - every athlete's ambition is to compete in an Olympics and for some 1980 was their only chance.

"It was very obvious at the time that the athletes had no influence over the NOC. We were more or less dismissed by them and it was the same with regard to politics and society in general. I had discussions about the boycott with the then-chancellor (Helmut Schmidt) and president (Karl Carstens) and I always had the feeling they had no interest in sport."

Since then Bach has made his priorities the fight against doping - he argued for a lifelong ban back in 1981 - and taking care of the athletes and their concerns.

But his cleancut image has taken a hit of late with questions raised about his relationship with the Gulf States, namely Kuwait amid accusations he has used his position and his friendship with Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah to advance his commerical interests.

Bach, an IOC vice-president three times since becoming a member in 1991, may lay heavy emphasis on the athlete's requirements but he got a rude shock when as a very young boy he and his parents differed over his sporting preferences - the result of which was to prove a life changer.

"I played football out in the street from morning to night, there was not much time for kindergarten!" he said. "I used to come back with the usual scratches and bruises and my mother would raise her eyebrows.

"Anyway, my parents wanted to solve the problem of having a hyperactive son and saw a sports club as the answer. I said 'great, tomorrow I go to the local football club (in the small town of Tauberbischofsheim in Franconia)' but they said 'no, we don't think they do a good job, there is a young man who has started a fencing club and is doing a good job'. I ended up at the fencing club."

Around 16 years later Bach was to return to the town feted as an Olympic champion.

"At the time you win the gold you really don't appreciate what you have achieved, that the thing you have dreamed about has come true," he said. "I realised only after coming back home to the town with the long name (Tauberbischofsheim)! It had an official population of 10,000 but there were 30,000 people out to greet me and the whole region was blocked.

"I still get goosebumps when I speak of that. I had to address the crowd and there was no question of giving a 45 minute speech. I remember the one sentence I said.

"It was: 'You have made me feel what it feels like to be an Olympic champion'."

On Tuesday Bach experienced that for a second memorable time.