By David Owen

David OwenWhen Thomas Bach, the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, bumps into Sebastian Coe, he sometimes greets him jokingly as "Shakespeare". And when the British Olympic Association (BOA) chairman returns the greeting, he will often refer to his old friend as "the professor".

The derivation of the joke dates back more than three decades, to 1981 to be precise, when the two men were at the heart of what, in retrospect, can be described as a veritable Olympic revolution.

The unlikely setting for this event was the tranquil German town of Baden-Baden with, as one contemporary chronicler put it, "its spa waters and gentle parkland paths for the retired".

This was the venue the Movement had chosen for its first Olympic Congress in eight years. And this was the situation that confronted it in late-September as the Great and the Good of world sport descended on the margins of the Black Forest:

● The previous year's Olympics in Moscow had been marred by a boycott, a threat which already hovered over the next Summer Games to be staged in Los Angeles in 1984;

● There was no money;

● There was little appetite among world cities to stage the Games. Los Angeles had been the only realistic candidate in 1984 and IOC members who were soon to vote on where to hold the 1988 Olympics would be choosing between just two candidates - Seoul and Nagoya;

● Less than a decade had passed since the appalling slaughter of the Israeli athletes in Munich, another southern German city;

● Oh and there was a new IOC President, a little-known Spanish roller skating enthusiast called Juan Antonio Samaranch.

When Thomas Bach bumps into Sebastian Coe, he sometimes greets him jokingly as "Shakespeare", and Coe returns the greeting, often referring to Bach as "the professor"When Thomas Bach bumps into Sebastian Coe, he sometimes greets him jokingly as "Shakespeare", and Coe returns the greeting, often referring to Bach as "the professor"

In the circumstances, you would be forgiven for thinking that the experiment of allowing active Olympic athletes for the first time to address a Congress was likely to be passed off as an amusing diversion, a harmless distraction from the serious matters to hand.

And yet, while that litany of problems has passed into history as the Olympic Movement has basked in a new golden age, the influence of athletes - and, in particular, the athlete-leaders such as Coe, the wordsmith, and Bach, the thinker, unearthed in September 1981 in Baden-Baden - has grown and grown.

This trend set a new benchmark in Buenos Aires in September 2013, with the election of Bach, one of the Baden-Baden pioneers, as IOC President.

When Peter Tallberg, a Finnish yachtsman asked by Samaranch to chair the group of athletes invited to Baden-Baden on grounds that he was then the only IOC member who had participated in the Games whilst being a member, told the Congress that athletes were "the biggest hidden treasure" within the Movement, he knew what he was talking about.

As Coe now suggests, the opportunity for athletes to grab a place in the Movement's decision-making machinery may have arisen in part because of a realisation by Samaranch that he would need allies if he was to be able to effect the changes he judged necessary: "It gave athletes some self-determination, but it gave him cover for what he needed to do."

Nonetheless, there was nothing automatic about the rise of athlete influence that Baden-Baden set in motion: if their representatives had not seized the moment beneath the chandeliers of the Kurhaus, there is no telling how long this process might have been delayed.

The story of how Coe, Bach and their colleagues grasped their opportunity when it materialised began eight years earlier in Varna, a Bulgarian resort on the opposite side of the Black Sea from Sochi. There it was agreed at the 10th Olympic Congress in 1973 that athlete representatives would be given the right to speak at the next such gathering.

The list of 38 active, medal-winning athletes who were eventually invited to the 11th Congress in Baden-Baden included stars such as gymnast Nadia Comăneci, Teófilo Stevenson, the great Cuban boxer, and Ethiopian distance runner Miruts Yifter, as well as those who ended up taking centre-stage.

Teófilo Stevenson was one of 38 active, medal-winning athletes who were invited to the Congress in Baden-BadenTeófilo Stevenson was one of 38 active, medal-winning athletes who were invited to the Congress in Baden-Baden

When they arrived, they had no clear idea of what was to be expected of them; Coe told Norman Fox of The Times that he came "looking for a few days' holiday".

Others, however, had been laying careful groundwork.

Jürgen Schröder, the former oarsman working as part of Organising committee President Willi Daume's planning team, had taken great pains to try to ensure that the athletes would be able to hold discussions without outside interference.

They were assigned their own hotel and meetings were in a riding club; interpreters were provided and tables draped with green tablecloths to help create the requisite serious, workmanlike ambiance.

Schröder also considered it important that the athletes be given opportunities to interact with the local population, so school visits were laid on, and residents invited to come and practice sports with some of their famous guests in morning sessions.

Finally, he recognised that with cold war politics dividing the world into two mutually antagonistic poles, the ice might take quite a bit of breaking before members of the athletes' group could be coaxed into working effectively together.

"The first evening we had a party in the castle for athletes and coaches," he remembers. "We were in the wine-cellar and we ate a lot and drank a lot so everyone would feel well."

Schröder's friend Donna de Varona, a precociously talented US swimmer who had retired absurdly young and gone into broadcasting, had also become involved.

Tallberg credits her specifically with "building up the right atmosphere in the group"; just as importantly, she was later able to bring her broadcasting skills to bear in preparing the athlete-speakers for the potentially intimidating task of addressing the Congress.

Schröder, incidentally, was also able to help compensate for the Movement's lack of ready cash by having a friend deliver thousands of bottles of sparkling wine from Deinhard in Koblenz. "A big lorry came full of cases of wine," he recalls. "I gave it to everyone."

With the success of Schröder's ice-breaking techniques - and general awareness of the sheer welter of pressing issues with a direct bearing on athletes' interests that they were now being given a priceless opportunity to influence - the athletes' group was soon squirreling away diligently in their riding club.

"It may have been noted by the Congress that the athletes here have been looking a little bit tired," Coe speculated when he addressed the gathering on its concluding day - September 28.

"We are! We have all been working long hours in the preparation of the papers - often working into the early hours of the morning.

"No discos, just discussion."

What still strikes participants three decades on is the high level of consensus on issues such as doping, politics and sport, athletes' payments and women's representation even among those living under literally warring political systems.

The impact of this was particularly potent given that the rest of the Movement was riven with divisions.

"Everybody on the athletes' group had to agree to every word of every speech," De Varona recalls.

"[It showed] the athletes could speak with one voice. It was incredibly significant, I think."

From such a large group, leaders quickly emerged.

Remembers Tallberg: "I kept a list of the participants in front of me, and every time when a delegate asked for the floor I ticked her or him off on my list.

"So soon I was able to spot the most active and efficient participants."

When after what he describes as "tough and not necessarily pleasant negotiations", the athletes' allotted speaking time at Congress was increased from one five-minute slot to five short five-minute speeches and a longer final statement, Tallberg made what he describes as a "dictatorial decision": the six athlete-speakers would be those who had "actively taken the floor and shown a keen interest during our meetings".

Sebastian Coe, Vladislav Tretiak, Thomas Bach, Svetla Otzetova, Peter Tallberg, Kip Keino and Ivar Formo of the IOC's first Athletes' CommissionSebastian Coe, Vladislav Tretiak, Thomas Bach, Svetla Otzetova, Peter Tallberg, Kip Keino and Ivar Formo of the IOC's first Athletes' Commission

The main final speech was entrusted to Coe, with the others being Kip Keino, the Kenyan runner, Svetla Otzetova, a Bulgarian oarswoman, Thomas Bach, a German fencer who had missed the Moscow Games because of the boycott, Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet ice-hockey legend, and Ivar Formo, a Norwegian cross-country skier. It was Formo, tragically drowned in 2006, who had the honour of being the first active athlete to address a Congress.

There were two complications. Number one, according to Tallberg, Bach and skier Irene Epple would both have "qualified" as speakers, "but I felt German speaker would have to be enough, so I decided in favour of Thomas who had more ticks in my paper".

Number two, both Schröder and Tallberg recall Soviet interventions to increase pressure for Tretiak to be involved. According to Tallberg, "I was told by Samaranch that IOC member Adrianov had seen him and insisted that in order to avoid turbulence there must be a Soviet athlete who delivers a message from the athletes' group. We arrived at a good compromise and decided that Tretiak would be one of the speakers."

"Speakers here," wrote the man from The Times, "are capable of referring to events of 50 years ago as "recent" occurrences, so the young athletes who sit at the back wonder whether they will change anything".

In fact, it wasn't long before they started to see the fruit of their labours.

On October 2, the IOC announced that sports federations would be allowed some flexibility in interpreting the definition of what constituted an amateur, much as advocated by Bach and Coe in their Congress speeches.

They also elected the first two women IOC members: Flor Fonseca of Venezuela and Finland's Pirio Haggman.

On October 27, a press release was published by IOC headquarters in Lausanne announcing the creation of "a Commission for athletes", presided over by Tallberg, who was to remain in situ for 21 years, and consisting of the six Baden-Baden speakers. US hurdles champion Ed Moses and Bojan Križaj, the Yugoslav skier, were subsequently added to act as liaison with the 1984 Olympic cities of Sarajevo and Los Angeles.

There was still trouble ahead. A partial boycott of Los Angeles could not be averted. And Tallberg mentions the "unbelievable opposition" towards the involvement of athletes in the sport structures in the Commission's early days.

"I am 100-per cent sure that the majority of IOC members, the IF and NOC Presidents all felt that the athletes would disrupt their hegemony in the decision-making process," he told me.

A number of the key figures at the 1981 Baden-Baden Congress met again in 2011 to mark the 30th anniversary of "The Birth of the Olympic Movement's modern era"A number of the key figures at the 1981 Baden-Baden Congress met again in 2011 to mark the 30th anniversary of "The Birth of the Olympic Movement's modern era"

Sometimes, though, the true significance of things becomes clear only with the passage of time. Well, the more time that has passed, the more that week in Baden-Baden has taken on the appearance of a bona fide landmark in the Movement's history.

For Schröder it was the moment when the athletes became accepted - and respected - by the IOC.

And now, with Bach's election to the biggest post of all coming hard on the heels of Coe's unflustered stewardship of a stupendously successful Summer Games, the importance of that Baden-Baden process in spawning a new generation of leaders has been double-underlined.

"One thing seems sure," says Tallberg when asked how the Games would be different today had there not been an Athletes' Commission: "There would probably be a different President."

"I always had the vision that if we put athletes in play, that could be the next generation of leaders," says De Varona.

"The athletes changed the Movement. They were young. They spoke as one voice. They cared. These people have emerged as great leaders."

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.