Brian Oliver ©ITG

Tuesday (September 28) is a very special 40th anniversary for the Olympic Games and all its athletes.

September 28 1981 was the day when the athletes' voice was heard in an impassioned speech addressed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), at the XIth Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Five shorter addresses had already been given by athletes, who had been invited to participate at the Congress for the first time.

They were delivered by individuals - including the current IOC President Thomas Bach and World Athletics President Sebastian Coe - but none was speaking for himself or herself.

These were the collective, unanimous views of 25 Olympic medallists who had spent 10 days, sometimes into the early hours, discussing the issues that had affected them and which they were keen to raise.

"We wanted a seat at the table, the right to self-determination, the right to inclusion and equality," said the Australian swimmer Michelle Ford, who was one of the 25. "We wanted our voice, the athletes’ voice, to be heard."

Their voice was indeed heard, to such an extent that the Congress was described by Jacques Rogge, during his 12-year presidency of the IOC early this century, as "the start of a revolution".

Ford, who won 800 metres freestyle gold at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, agrees with that view but believes the wider sporting world is unaware of the significance of the athletes’ role 40 years ago.

She was 19 in Baden-Baden and most of the athletes were under 30. They helped the IOC to take a first step towards a future in which it would be able to loudly proclaim, as it does now, "The athletes are the centre of the Olympic Games."

They certainly were not at the centre before that meeting in 1981: they felt they were on the outside, ignored and overlooked at a time of political boycotts and doping that disfigured Olympic sport.

The Irishman Lord Killanin, IOC President from 1972 to 1980, had been involved in the planning of that landmark athletes' meeting, having first invited a group of athletes to attend the 1973 Olympic Congress in Bulgaria as observers.

Thomas Bach, Sebastian Coe ad Michelle Ford - left to right - all played key roles in the establishment of the IOC's Athletes' Commission ©Michelle Ford
Thomas Bach, Sebastian Coe ad Michelle Ford - left to right - all played key roles in the establishment of the IOC's Athletes' Commission ©Michelle Ford

Juan Antonio Samaranch, from Spain, was elected as IOC President in 1980 and he made athlete involvement a reality.

In the eight years between that 'observer' gathering in 1973 and the Baden-Baden Congress there were two boycotts of the Olympic Games, at Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980, and doping had become a serious concern.

The IOC's policy on amateurism was another cause of concern for the athletes, as was the lack of women in positions of influence throughout the sporting world.

Ford said, "We, the athletes, were left with a sense of helplessness. The issues had affected us all - everybody who was there in Baden-Baden."

The IOC had held tight to its strict amateur code, yet there was, said Ford, "a canyon between the full-time sports programme for athletes in many Soviet Bloc countries and those of us who, like me, needed to fit training in and around work or school".

Doping also affected Ford directly, as she might have won more than one gold medal in Moscow but for the illegal advantage gained by East German swimmers under a systematic, state-sponsored doping programme.

In Baden-Baden the athletes called it "the most shameful abuse of the Olympic ideal" - and that was long before the full extent of the cheating was revealed.

The IOC was a male-only club and few women held senior executive positions of any sport.

"The inclusion of women in the Olympic movement was so important," said Ford.

"Women’s events counted for only a quarter of the Olympic programme at that time, there were no female IOC members, nor were any to be found on any of the International or National Federation Boards even though the Olympic swimming programme, for example, was almost identical for women and men. The imbalance across the spectrum of sports was startling."

Six of the athletes in Baden-Baden were female - Ford; Yuko Arakida from Japan, a volleyball gold medallist in 1976; Svetla Otzetova of Bulgaria, a rowing gold medallist in 1976; Elizabeth Theurer, a 1980 equestrian gold medallist from Austria; and the two winter athletes, Vera Sosulia of the Soviet Union, a gold medallist in luge in 1980 and Irene Epple, the West German Alpine silver medallist 1980.

Ford was impressed, on her arrival at Frankfurt Airport, to be met by a personal chauffeur and driven to the athletes’ hotel in Baden-Baden in a black Mercedes.

"Every detail of our 10-day itinerary was precisely ordered, everything was organised to the second."

Each athlete had to have participated in at least one of the past three Olympiads (1972, 1976, 1980), so Munich, Montreal and Moscow Summer Games and Sapporo, Innsbruck and Lake Placid Winter Games. The summer and winter versions were held in the same year until 1992.

Michelle Ford won the women's 800m freestyle Olympic gold medal in 1980 ©Michelle Ford
Michelle Ford won the women's 800m freestyle Olympic gold medal in 1980 ©Michelle Ford

Most were household names in their own countries, some of world acclaim - such as Teófilo Stevenson, the Cuban boxer, the renowned Kenyan athlete Kip Keino, and Coe.

"On September 21, two days before the official opening of the Congress, the 25 athletes, some with trepidation and others with gusto, met for the first time in the athletes’ designated area, the International Hall," writes Ford in a chapter about Baden-Baden in her yet-to-be-published autobiography. 

"A welcome speech introduced our appointed staff and our official interpreters, followed by an overview outlining our heavy social calendar and the reason we were assembled.

"We would sit and talk but the end result was to be four five-minute presentations to the IOC Congress, delivered in English by athletes chosen only by us, with no external influence.

"The Finnish sailor Peter Tallberg, an IOC Member who was asked by Samaranch to be the liaison between the IOC Members and the invited athletes and to coordinate our activities, told us, 'It’s now up to you!'

"Tallberg introduced Donna de Varona, the American dual gold medallist swimmer from Tokyo 1964 and a prominent broadcaster for ABC, who would provide useful guidance.

"With the formalities over, the wine glasses were filled. This was a time when the Olympic Movement was said to have no money and was struggling to find cities to host the Games. But it found plenty of wine, courtesy of Jurgen Schröder, the former German oarsman and our go-to person in charge of the athletes’ programme.

"The athletes were a convivial group, but all strangers. Each athlete from the East had an ‘interpreter’ in tow, although we later came to understand that these were their political watchers, there to make sure they toed the party line.

"It was obvious that many delegates at the Congress regarded us as a mere masquerade. This feeling was accentuated when we were joined by some of the members, national delegates, who sought to be seen with their star athletes.

"School visits, excursions, wining and dining - it was all a far cry from my rigorous training routine.

"When we got down to discussing what the four athlete speeches should focus on, what struck me was the fact that, regardless of sport, nation, or personal background, we soon found a united, common voice.

"The issues were multiple and complex. A burning question emerged: how, in four five-minute speeches, were we going to present all the topics that were important to us?

"Four short speeches would not be adequate. On the evening before the official opening of the Congress, on September 22, we drafted a letter which was delivered to President Samaranch, asking for more time, and for a meeting with him.

New IOC Athletes' Commission members were honoured during the Tokyo 2020 Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images
New IOC Athletes' Commission members were honoured during the Tokyo 2020 Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images

"Early the next morning we had word that President Samaranch accepted our request to meet, and agreed to an additional five-minute presentation and a longer speech of 15 minutes on the last day of the Congress.

"Five main topics emerged - issues that had bitterly affected the athletes over the past decade and consequently questioned the perenniality of the Olympic movement.

"They were doping; amateurism; political involvement and boycotts; gender imbalance; and Olympic ceremonies – a topical subject for many athletes in Moscow who had seen the Olympic flag raised rather than their own national flag.

"Each topic touched a raw nerve. We had each been affected directly or indirectly by these five key points, with the boycott and systemic doping being the most significant news stories from the Moscow Games.”

"Although the social events had pulled some of our group away, those who remained wanted to seize this moment in the hope they could protect future generations of athletes from the harms we had suffered.

"We voiced our different experiences and challenged each other closely. Athletes were not trained nor were they encouraged to speak. The system discouraged such ‘political’ discussion and only a few realised that we needed to seize this moment and were prepared to do the work to meet the challenge.

"It became clear that while we wanted to ensure an East-West balance in our choices, we no longer needed the interpreters: those remaining all spoke good English, the language in which the speeches would be delivered.

"It was decided between us that there had to be unanimous agreement between all athletes for what would be finally presented. This in itself was quite extraordinary.

"We were between a Moscow boycott and a possible retaliation boycott in Los Angeles, in the middle of Cold War, yet we were a small group of athletes, none of whom had met two days prior, representing east and west, north and south, working together in a spirit of esprit de corps for the benefit of all athletes. It was truly refreshing. It was the Olympic spirit in action."

Ford was especially animated about boycotts, and with good reason.

The Moscow boycott, in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was first suggested by West Germany’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and taken up forcefully by the US President Jimmy Carter. Eventually, more than 60 nations stayed away.

"In Baden-Baden, the scars were still raw for those of us who had competed in Moscow, and even more so for those who had been prohibited from participating by their respective NOC [National Olympic Committee] or government," said Ford.

The Australian Government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, supported a boycott but the decision was left to individual athletes. Ford felt she was upholding Olympic ideals by refusing to join the boycott.

On the morning of her gold-medal race she opened letters from back home in Australia. One of them said, "Michelle, you must withdraw from your race… If you decide not to and dare to stand up on the blocks you will be a traitor to this country."

Australian Athletes won only two gold medals at Moscow 1980 amid a partial boycott ©Getty Images
Australian Athletes won only two gold medals at Moscow 1980 amid a partial boycott ©Getty Images

She was angry and bewildered. "How could someone write such a letter? The words hurt, the untruths. It was poison. What had we, the athletes, done to deserve this?"

Fraser’s Government offered bribes of AUD6,000 (£3,200/$4,400/€3,700) to Ford’s fellow amateur team members if they joined the boycott - while the country continued to trade with the Soviet Union.

Only 126 of the 273 athletes originally selected for Australia actually competed.

"The boycott reinforced to us that the athletes played no part in the administration of sport," said Ford. "We were voiceless and we felt we were treated as insignificant pawns by a political machinery.

"Boycotts hurt athletes full stop, and have never achieved the political ends they promote."

All the Moscow boycott achieved was another boycott, this time a retaliatory one involving most of the Soviet Bloc nations, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

"I had taken notes and written a speech on boycotts and their injustices: the indecision, the death threats and in my case, the Government offering financial rewards directly to athletes to withdraw from the 1980 team," said Ford.

"I felt it would be more powerful to have someone who had been excluded from the Olympic Games by a boycott present the speech, and turned to Kip Keino, who had missed the Montreal Games."

Keino, a two-time Olympic champion runner who would go on to head the Kenyan Olympic Committee, was the only African delegate. He agreed to present the speech.

Otzetova would deliver the speech on women’s participation, Bach - a fencing gold medallist in Montreal - had a legal background and would speak on Rule 26, the amateur rule.

Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet ice hockey goalkeeper, was to deliver the speech on Olympic ceremonies, and Ivor Formo, the Norwegian cross-country skier, a gold medalist in 1976, would be the lead-off speaker, presenting the athletes’ position on doping.

"We all agreed that Sebastian Coe, a track gold medallist in Moscow, a native English speaker from Great Britain, would present the longer, final 15-minute speech on the last day of the Congress, his 25th birthday," said Ford.

"Every speech was a collective effort, the athletes' united voice.

"We said things that athletes weren’t allowed to say back then."

Athletes were fort he first time able to play an active role at an Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden in 1981 ©Michelle Ford
Athletes were fort he first time able to play an active role at an Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden in 1981 ©Michelle Ford

Each of the five short speeches was met with "a smattering of applause from the members" and the athletes decided they must demand action in the final flagship address, which would be heard on the last day of the Congress.

"Back at the bistro table that had become our meeting place, Thomas Bach, Seb Coe, Ivar Formo and I were the last to keep the flame alive. Every word was checked for clarity, to avoid misinterpretation, as we poured passion into our mission. Our deadline was 7am, one hour before the Congress reconvened.

"We raised the subject of life bans for dopers, of punishing coaches and members of the athlete entourage, and while we understood that a life ban might not be workable on legal grounds, it was clear that if we went in softly, nothing would change.

"On amateurism there was consensus: the athlete from the West was falling behind, tied to a more stringent interpretation of the amateur rule than in the Soviet Bloc, and athletes were struggling.

"It was time to relax this barbaric law that controlled the athlete, prohibiting them from financial gain. Rule 26 had to be changed to allow every athlete the same opportunity.

"Satisfied that the earlier speeches had made their mark, we deemed it important to reiterate our disappointment that the IOC had no women in its ranks and that female participation in less than 25 per cent of events at the Games was not good enough. 

"It had to be said again that the IOC was 'out of step' and that male and female participation should be made equal at all levels. 

"What about all those that had to forgo the opportunity to participate in the Games? Every athlete, we concluded, should have the right to compete without being subjected to political pressure or discrimination of any kind, and the Olympic Games must play host to the best athletes from all corners of the globe.

"We had been together for eight days, and although we did not know each other beforehand, a bond had developed, close friendships had formed, and respect for each other had grown.

"The four of us, it seemed, had each come to Baden-Baden with determination and hope that we could make a difference.

"And our overall message was that athletes should be involved in the IOC’s decision-making processes."

One of the lines read out by Coe to the IOC members was, "No discos - just discussion".

A letter confirming the composition of the first IOC Athletes' Commission ©Michelle Ford
A letter confirming the composition of the first IOC Athletes' Commission ©Michelle Ford

After outlining all the athletes' major concerns, and a number of lesser ones, Coe said:

"We strongly suggest that this group of athletes be regarded as the consulting body to help us attain the way in which athletes can participate in the decision-making processes of our movement. 

"In his address, Peter Tallberg kindly referred to the athletes as a reserve - a hidden treasure. His inclusion into our group could be the key unlocking the trove. 

"Finally, I feel that our inclusion in the Congress here in Baden-Baden and the tenacity with which we have grasped our tasks kills if not buries the common misconception that athletes are unthinking robots."

The Athletes' Commission was established one month after the Congress, putting athletes at the heart of the Olympic Movement.

In Los Angeles in 1984, Bach and Ford were appointed to run the first Athlete's Office at a summer Olympic Games. A year later Ford and four of those who spoke in Baden-Baden - Bach, Coe, Keino and Tretyak - were members of the first fully representative IOC Athletes Commission, with members from all continents.

A member of the Athletes' Commission now sits on every other IOC commission.

The Baden-Baden Congress also brought an end to amateurism at the Games.

It took longer than it should have done but the first global anti-doping code was elaborated in 1990.

An IOC statement that accompanied Jacques Rogge’s speech about Baden-Baden, delivered in 2011, stated, "Of all the decisions that would alter the future direction of the Olympic Movement, none was more important than the establishment of the IOC Athletes’ Commission."

Michelle Ford-Eriksson MBE, from Sydney, was an Olympic gold and bronze medallist in Moscow 1980, and dual world record holder. 

In 1985 she was appointed to the IOC Athletes Commission. She has held directorships of the Australian Sports Commission, Australian Sports Foundation, and Swimming Australia. Michelle was a Director of Sport at the University and Ecole Polytechnique of Lausanne, Switzerland, before returning to Australia to work with the Organising Committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. 

This Big Read is adapted from The Athletes' Voice, one chapter in Michelle’s yet to be published autobiography.