Power Game: Thomas Bach’s Iron Grip on the Olympics

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.

These were formative years, as Bach developed the mental playbooks required to move through the rapidly evolving, increasingly lucrative worlds of sports, business and politics.

“It’s like a person having three feet and being able to put one in each camp,” Michael Payne, who led the I.O.C.’s marketing team from 1983 to 2004, said of Bach.

Of all the issues Bach must navigate, the role of politics in the Games — starting with what, exactly, can be categorized as political in the first place — often feels the prickliest.

He continues to believe strongly that the Olympics should be a haven from politics (as he defines them), and to this day he invokes the 1980 Moscow boycott experience — a moment, he believes, when politics corrupted sports — when facing questions about why, for instance, the Olympics bars athletes from demonstrating on the podium at the Games or why the I.O.C. partners with host countries, like Russia or China, that have poor records on human rights.

Often he expresses some variation on a thought he articulated in a 2013 manifesto expressing his vision of the Olympic movement: “Sport must be politically neutral, but sport cannot be apolitical.” To him, this conveys the narrow passageway the I.O.C. must navigate to maintain its autonomy, however nonsensical some critics find the distinction.

Those issues, along with the frustrations of many over how Bach has handled revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia, constitute some of the major criticisms leveled at him today from active Olympians, particularly those from Western democracies, many of whom contend that Bach, despite being a former athlete himself, is out of touch with their concerns. Bach, in turn, argues that they represent only a subset of athletes’ views, that the Olympics must accommodate competitors, and political viewpoints, from more than 200 countries.

“You may think it’s impossible to think differently,” Bach said in an interview. “But, you know, people think differently about all issues.”

The enormity of the I.O.C.’s influence and the singular authority of its president are fairly recent phenomena. Other presidents ran the organization at their personal whim, as many contend Bach does today, but none were pulling the strings of an institution as mammoth as the contemporary version and none were operating in a space as complicated as the modern sports landscape.

Until the late 1990s, the I.O.C. largely maintained a back-seat role in the operation of the Olympics, stepping aside after selecting a host city to let local organizing committees execute the Games. That attitude changed after the 1996 Atlanta Games, which teetered so closely to disaster — with transportation snags, technical glitches and security breaches — that the I.O.C. determined it needed a more hands-on approach to avoid further disorder.

In response, the I.O.C.’s staff at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, has swelled from a couple dozen people in the 1980s to about 100 people in the ’90s to roughly 600 people today. This growth, in turn, has diminished the role of the I.O.C.’s membership, a group of 102 sports officials from around the world who once handled many of the specialized tasks now undertaken by seasoned professionals in Lausanne.

The most crippling recent blow to the membership’s power came when Bach took away its biggest responsibility: voting on host cities. The process had traditionally been rife with bribery and corruption. More recently, though the I.O.C. has struggled to attract viable candidates amid concerns of skyrocketing costs.

Bach tackled these issues by simply changing the rules. In 2017, he unceremoniously altered the old bidding process, awarding hosting rights for two Games at once. The 2024 Games were given to Paris, while Los Angeles, also vying for those Games, was persuaded to sign on for 2028. Two years later, Bach scrapped the old bidding protocol altogether, moving the process largely behind closed doors, where uncontroversial host cities (Brisbane, Australia, was recently revealed as the top candidate for the 2032 Summer Games) could be picked despite questions about transparency and potential conflicts of interest.

“Sometimes you just have to make decisions, and sometimes that can appear autocratic, and sometimes it can appear that you’re doing it in a bit of a hurry, and the reality of it is actually both are probably true and both on occasions are necessary,” said Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, the international governing body of track and field, and an I.O.C. member.

That the I.O.C. also exercises considerable control over the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Court of Arbitration of Sport, two bodies that in a parallel universe might serve as independent watchdogs of the Olympics, further extends Bach’s reach.

“It’s a transnational corporation, in essence, with a twist: they are self-governing, self-regulating, and autonomous,” said Lisa Kihl, the director of the Global Institute for Responsible Sport Organizations at the University of Minnesota. “Who do they report to if they do anything wrong? Nobody.”

Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian who has worked for the I.O.C., said members’ main perk now is to get placed on one of the committee’s various commissions, which are assembled by the president. This, insiders say, explains the culture of deference.

“North Korea couldn’t have done it better,” said Jens Sejer Andersen, director of Play the Game, an organization that promotes ethical sports governance.

Bach has often characterized himself as the conductor of an orchestra — a metaphor surely meant to flatter the members, but one that also emphasizes the importance of accord. Public expressions of disagreement, then, are rare.

“There are a lot of sycophants in the membership,” said Richard W. Pound, a longtime member from Canada who believes Bach has done a good job as president, “and lavish expressions of support may mean that you get on a commission.”

One rare moment of discord occurred in 2013, when Bach was first running for president. Denis Oswald, a candidate from Switzerland, was quoted saying he did not “share the same values” as Bach and suggesting Bach had used his sports contacts to benefit his outside business interests.

Echoing vocal critics outside the I.O.C., Oswald also suggested that Bach was compromised by his close ties to Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, a global sports kingmaker, who as an I.O.C. member had lobbied on Bach’s behalf. The sheikh, facing various scandals and accusations of corruption, has since stepped aside from his Olympic duties.

Reached by phone last month, Oswald, who was named a member of Bach’s executive board in 2017, backtracked on his comments. “It was an emotional moment,” he said. A journalist had asked him a question, he added, “and in the end I said that without really thinking it.”

Bach’s public persona is expressed in carefully chosen words, delivered in a professorial paragraphs, speckled with dry humor.

In private, Bach seeks out good bottles of red wine — bad ones he calls Brühe, a German word for swill — and enjoys the card game skat. Back home he is a member of the F.D.P., a party of free market liberals known for its affluent constituency. He is known to enjoy a plate of currywurst.

The I.O.C. president is technically a volunteer, though the organization in 2015 revealed that Bach was receiving an annual “indemnity” payment of 225,000 euros (roughly $244,000 at the time) to cover his activities as president. Like the two I.O.C. presidents before him, he lives at the Lausanne Palace, a luxury hotel in the center of the city, free of charge.

Bach is an exacting boss. Michael Vesper, a close associate and longtime adviser, joked that he felt like Bach’s “slave” during Bach’s term as president of the German Olympic Sports Confederation from 2006 to 2013. “He is very, very demanding,” Vesper said. “He always asks you, if you have a heavy day or task, ‘Then what will you do in the afternoon?’”

On the other hand, Bach is a disarming small-talker; a rememberer of birthdays; a collector of personal factoids he jots onto slips of paper and carries in an etui for later use.

Last year, as the coronavirus swept through Europe, Bach left Lausanne for the nearby mountains. He took long walks outside and let his perpetually cropped gray hair grow shaggy. When his wife, Claudia, went back to Germany to take care of her mother, he was left to fend for himself in the kitchen. He lost weight. The hardest part of the situation, Bach said, was the dearth of human connection.

“I’m kind of a hugger,” he said.

He relishes an argument the same way he did the to-and-fro of a fencing bout and rarely second-guesses himself publicly, but he answered in the affirmative — “definitely” — when asked whether he regretted anything about the way he managed the onset of the pandemic. Less than three weeks before the postponement of the Tokyo Games was announced, for example, he urged Olympians to train at “full steam.” Athletes, scrambling to prepare, were growing anxious, and angry, about the dearth of information from the I.O.C.

“I think there was a lack of communication to explain this better,” Bach said, “to ask the people, to ask also the athletes, try to put yourself into our shoes.”

Bach knew the sports world was hanging on his every utterance. He admitted he should have been more transparent about the possible outcomes.

His contrition, though, this bit of self-doubt, stopped there. He was unmoved by rounds of surveys this year showing that the majority of Japanese people wanted the Games to be canceled or postponed again.

“You cannot take a decision regarding an Olympic Games, which is followed by billions of people worldwide, which is being longed for by athletes around the globe, by having a poll,” he said.

Similarly, he disputed that the Olympics, as a concept, might be outdated or somehow unworkable, as many critics contend. He acknowledged there was a worldwide “culture of mistrust” toward governments and large organizations like the I.O.C. But any notion that the Games faced some existential crisis, he said, did not match reality. He noted that attractive host cities, major sponsors (like Coca-Cola and Visa) and national broadcast partners (NBC) were signed up through 2032.

“If they did not have confidence in our management of the Games and the Olympic movement, they would never make these long-term agreements,” Bach said.

Bach’s arguments, it is clear, have not been lost on the I.O.C.’s membership.

Once Bach’s re-election was confirmed at the virtual meeting in March, he stood up and walked toward the wall of video screens, where members were clapping their hands in front of their cameras. They were collectively unmuted, and soon tinny shouts of “bravo!”, “congratulations!”, and “felicidades!” crackled through the room.

Bach stretched his arms, curled his fingers and pantomimed a group hug toward the towering grid of disembodied, grinning faces.