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

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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 — have 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.

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