Tokyo Olympic Games officially kicked off on Friday after passing through many turbulent circumstances. This was revealed in the IOC President’s statement at the opening ceremony.
Thomas Bach was crying. He tried to speak, but his voice quavered.
It was early March, and Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, was staring out at a curved bank of video screens displaying the placid, smiling faces of the organization’s membership scattered in offices, libraries and living rooms around the world.
On the agenda for this virtual meeting was a presidential election. But Bach, running unopposed for a second term, encountered not hard questions about the future of the Olympic movement but a warm bath of obsequiousness, a testament to the power he has amassed controlling the world’s largest, and in some ways most troubled, sports festival.
“We have one captain,” Gianni Infantino, the president of world soccer’s governing body and a member of the I.O.C., said to Bach, “and that captain is you.”
“During these challenging times, no one can be better than you, Mr. President Thomas Bach,” said another member, Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul of Thailand, “to navigate us through rough waters, turn crises into opportunities and guide the I.O.C. to greater heights of success.”
Bach called on one person, then another, and another, looking at once embarrassed and pleased by the relay race of praise. He teared up after being called a “visionary,” then composed himself for the private vote. Out of 98 votes, he earned 93, with four abstentions and one against.
So accustomed to top-down harmony is the I.O.C. that the single vote against Bach soon became the subject of back-channel chatter. So accepted is the president’s singular influence that many have come to assume that the lone dissenter, whoever it was, had simply pushed the wrong button.
Anonymous to most casual fans, Bach, 67, is one of the most powerful people in global sports, a bespectacled, quadrilingual German whose decisions can alter the fates of not one sport, but dozens; not one country, but hundreds; and not merely a select group of elite professionals, but a worldwide athlete population in the millions.
Over the past year, as an impassioned international discourse simmered around the Tokyo Games — first postponed for a year, now pushing forth amid a pandemic-related state of emergency and a caustic chorus of criticism in Japan — Bach was the centrifugal force propelling them ahead.
Interviews with more than two dozen current and former colleagues, athletes, international sports officials and experts confirmed that perspectives on Bach are as diverse as the array of sports he oversees.
He is praised as a clairvoyant strategist. He is criticized as an autocrat. He is respected like a head of state. He is maligned as a friend of dictators. He is a former gold-medal-winning fencer who four decades ago helped kick-start the athlete empowerment movement. He vexes a younger generation of athletes now seeking different forms of empowerment. He has secured the fortunes of the Olympics for the next decade. He has inspired debate about whether they should exist at all.
Elected in 2013, Bach has referred to his initial, eight-year term as a “sea of troubles” (maritime metaphors for whatever reason abound at the I.O.C., which is based in Switzerland). The I.O.C. in that time faced doping scandals, challenges to its moral authority, threats of war. Even after all of that, at the starting line of Bach’s second term, the Tokyo Games represent perhaps Bach’s steepest obstacle yet: a supposedly joyful symposium that is instead clouded by questions of life and death.
That the president, amid all this, can still seem so bulletproof, so immune to whatever challenges swirl around him on a given day, reflects the cocoon of power he has built for himself atop the I.O.C.
With few internal checks and little external accountability, Bach has consolidated control inside the organization to such an extent that he has become, in the eyes of many allies and critics alike, the most influential president in the history of the Olympics.
The role has grown more complicated through the organization’s 127-year history, but in essence, Bach, like the men who preceded him, has only ever had one task: to safeguard the Olympic Games for the future, no matter the opposition they face, no matter if anyone else deems them worth protecting. And in this pivotal moment, Bach has done precisely that, grabbing hold of an institution viewed by critics as anachronistic, insular, even corrupt, and ensuring it will nevertheless prosper for another generation, by whatever means necessary.
The building blocks of Bach’s career were formed on the fencing piste. Winning a gold medal with the West German team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics supplied him with a priceless, lifelong credential. Watching his country join the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow awakened him to the mazy, magnetic tensions between sports and politics. And some have theorized that his mastery of fencing’s core tenets — craftiness, anticipation, a willingness to adapt — has served him equally well in the untamed world of international sports administration.
At 5-foot-7, Bach was undersized for his sport, a circumstance that extracted from him a distinctive style.
“He would keep coming at you with the blade — bah-bah-bah! — just relentless,” said Ed Donofrio, who competed for the United States at the 1976 Games.
“He was difficult to hit because he was always moving, fighting, scrapping,” said Barry Paul, a two-time Olympian for Great Britain.
Bach grew up in a small, southern German town called Tauberbischofsheim. When he was a baby, his father, Andreas, was diagnosed with heart disease and given one year to live. Watching his father live 12 more years after that, Bach said, taught him the value of resilience.
A rambunctious child, he was 6 when he began fencing lessons with Emil Beck, a disciplinarian coach whose great innovation, Bach said, was taking foil fencing, which until then had an almost artistic air, and applying to it the intensity and dynamism of other, more brutal sports.
“There was a saying: If Emil Beck tells you to sit down, you don’t look to see if there is a chair behind you,” said Matthias Behr, who trained alongside Bach and competed at three Olympics.
Bach was always studiously reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Behr said, and excelled in school. After the boycott of the 1980 Olympics — conceived by the United States government to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan — precipitated the end of Bach’s competitive career, he slipped almost seamlessly into other pursuits.
He became a founding member of the I.O.C. Athletes’ Commission in 1981. He started his own law practice. He stepped into the corporate business world, including as a marketing executive for Adidas under Horst Dassler, who helped create the system of athletic sponsorship that grew professional sports into a behemoth industry (and whom The Guardian once described as the man who “wrote the book on the system of kickbacks and patronage that defines modern sports politics”).
And in 1991, he was invited to become an I.O.C. member by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the charismatic, all-action Olympic president who laid the foundation for the Games to become the economic juggernaut they are today.
Bach said that Samaranch, a Spaniard who led the I.O.C. from 1980 to 2001, imparted to him three crucial lessons: to “never stand still” or be caught flat-footed; to network constantly with allies and opponents alike, managing relationships, reading between the lines; and to guard the “universality of the Games” — their chief appeal — by keeping the world’s many sports federations in a unified posture under the Olympic umbrella.
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