December 6, 2021

Baden−Baden 1981

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Baden−Baden 1981, an Olympic Congress that changed the Olympic Movement forever

International Olympic Committee

28 Sep 2021 – Forty years ago, the XI Olympic Congress held in Baden-Baden turned out to be of paramount importance in the history of the Olympic Movement – for the first time, athletes were invited to speak; it was decided to give women a bigger role in sports administration; and it was the turning point that led to a change of rules regarding athletes’ eligibility and the understanding of professionalism in sport.

Never before in the history of modern sport had so many sports organisation representatives gathered for such a consultation. With Juan Antonio Samaranch having been elected International Olympic Committee (IOC) President a year earlier, the Congress in Baden-Baden, held from 23 to 28 September, was exceptional in terms of its scale. With the theme “united by and for sport”, it brought together 469 official delegates, including representatives of the IOC, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federations (IFs), but also athletes (25 Olympians) and Olympic coaches, and 62 official observers.

The Congress addressed three topics: “The future of the Olympic Games”, “International cooperation” and “The Olympic Movement in prospect”.

theletes in Baden-Baden, 1981

Creation of the IOC Athletes’ Commission

“We were athletes, and we had the fighting spirit of athletes. This was reflected in the topics we chose to address and in the speaking time we asked to be given. (…) We were not just calling to be represented – we wanted to offer substance to show why it was important to have athlete representation,” said current IOC President, and one of the athletes’ representatives in Baden-Baden, Thomas Bach.

Recalling his remarkable battle against the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, Olympic team foil champion in 1976 Bach explains that, before this Congress, “times were very hard, and it was almost impossible to make the athletes’ voice heard. You have to understand that, on the one hand, the athletes had no real voice within the sports organisations, while on the other, the NOCs and the IOC had very limited political influence, to put it diplomatically. Or I would say none at all.”

Athletes played a major role in the Congress, and six of them spoke on behalf of the rest. Ivar Formo (NOR) spoke about the problem of doping; Svetla Otzetova (BUL), in her speech, focused on equal rights for women in the Olympic Movement; Bach (FRG) expressed the need to deliver a responsible revision of the amateur code; Kipchoge Keino (KEN) delivered the athletes’ perspective on sport and politics; Vladislav Tretyak (USSR) talked about Olympic ceremonies; and Sebastian Coe (GBR) delivered the closing statement.

Michèle Verdier, IOC Secretariat; Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe

“We were a small group of athletes, each representing different sports and political ideologies, but for these few days we worked and spoke as one. We took the chance to be bold, we wanted a seat at the table. Little did we know then that we would lay the foundations for the creation of the athletes’ voice within the Olympic Movement,” said Michelle Ford, who also took part in the Congress.

Drawing the necessary conclusions, in October 1981 Samaranch appointed all six as members of a new commission. He wrote a letter to them saying: “I have decided to create an IOC commission for athletes. This Commission will act as the spokesman of all athletes to the International Olympic Committee.”

Chaired by Peter Tallberg, this Commission held its first meeting in Rome in May 1982. Many of the topics on the agenda then are still relevant today. It addressed the fight against doping, gender equality and the conditions needed to keep the Games free of political influence and pressure.

The Athletes’ Commission would go on to occupy a key position at the heart of the Olympic Movement. As of 2000, fifteen athletes elected to the Commission become IOC Members, and the Commission Chair automatically becomes a member of the IOC Executive Board. Today, with athletes at the heart of the Olympic Movement, and increased support being given to them, the Commission plays a liaison role between athletes and the IOC, advising the Session, Executive Board and President on athlete-related matters.

The position of women in the sports movement

During the Congress in Baden-Baden, a number of speakers stressed the need to strengthen the role of women within the sports movement generally, and the Olympic Movement in particular. The President of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), Mario Vázquez Raña, called for “effective means to increase the participation of women, not just in Olympic competitions, but also in the technical, administrative and managerial areas of sport and Olympism”, and he was not the only one.

The number of women’s events at the Games had increased throughout the 20th century, but the conclusions of the Baden-Baden Congress would lead to a new development: henceforth, any new discipline included on the programme would have to have both men’s and women’s events.

The recommendations in the final declaration were acted upon by the 84th IOC Session held immediately after the Congress in Baden-Baden. The seven new IOC members co-opted on that occasion included the first two women to join the institution, Pirjo Häggman (FIN) and Flor Isava Fonseca (VEN). Their taking of the oath was an important moment in the history of the Olympic Movement, with the IOC showing the way forward. Since then, the number of female IOC members has grown constantly, and today they account for 33 per cent of the total membership, and 30.8 per cent of the Executive Board members.

Rule 26 change – the end of amateurism

At the Congress in Baden-Baden, there was still no question of abolishing Rule 26 of the Olympic Charter, which prevented professional athletes from competing; but rather of making it more flexible. The athletes who spoke during the event, including Bach, drew attention to how tough it was for athletes to devote their lives to their sport with no form of remuneration or social cover.

The final declaration states: “There is no place in the Olympic Games for ‘professional’ or ‘open’ competition. The principles of Rule 26 must be retained and the bye-laws made suitable for each Olympic sport, but compliance with this rule should not create inequalities between competitors.”

This actually meant the end of the requirement for athletes to be wholly amateur in order to take part in the Games. The IOC would agree with the IFs on the eligibility rules for athletes based on the specific characteristics of each sport. At the 84th Session, the IOC approved the return of tennis to the Olympic programme for Seoul 1988, with players who earned their living from this sport. In 1992 fans were able to watch the legendary performances of the “Dream Team”, composed of professional basketball players, and the rest is history.

Fight against doping

The athletes called for lifetime bans for any anti-doping infringement. For various reasons, including legal ones, this was not followed through. The final declaration of the Congress called for anti-doping testing to be no longer limited to Olympic or world competitions, but carried out worldwide throughout the year with the help of the IFs and NOCs, and stated that assistance should be given for the establishment of reliable and neutral laboratories throughout the world.


The IOC put into practice many of the ideas expressed during the Congress. These included liberalising the athlete eligibility criteria for the Games, introducing a minimum age limit for participants, giving women a bigger role in the sports movement, giving the athletes a voice, and introducing measures to combat doping.

It also stressed for the first time the importance of Olympic Solidarity, a key element for assisting developing countries, to help improve their sports performance and the practice of sport generally. In addition, all the Congress participants should continue to “strive towards the elimination of discrimination in sport”.

Other decisions were taken, such as the fact that the ceremonial aspects of the Games (the opening and closing ceremonies, the Village and medal ceremony protocol), which had been called into question, should be maintained in line with the existing text of the Olympic Charter, and that the Games should continue to be held anywhere in the world, rather than adopting the proposal from Greece that the Games should be held there permanently.

Thus it was that, in many different ways, Baden-Baden 1981 changed the face of the Olympic Movement for ever.

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