Outside the staging of summer and winter Olympic Games, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), which oversees the selection and participation of Australia’s athletes, rarely features in public debate.
In contrast, the recent election campaign for the presidency of the AOC was dramatic viewing. For the first time in 27 years, John Coates had a challenger – Danni Roche, a former Olympian and a board member at the Australian Sports Commission (ASC).
Gold for Australia?
The ASC is the government agency charged with the twin goals of international success in high-performance sport and increased participation across national sport organisations.
The AOC’s priority is Olympic athletes.
In 2009, Coates railed against the government-commissioned Crawford Report into Commonwealth funding priorities for sport. Coates described the Crawford recommendations to direct more money to high-participation sports as an insult to Olympians, and called for a A$100 million funding increase for Olympic sports to ensure Australia stayed in the top five on the medal tally.
At the 2012 London Olympics, the Australian team did not live up to the top five AOC-ASC performance expectations; it finished eighth overall. This prompted Coates to criticise the federal government for not providing the AOC’s requested level of funding to Olympic sports.
At the Rio Games, the Australian team dropped to tenth on the medal tally. In response, Coates lambasted the new chair of the ASC, John Wylie, who had been the architect of Australia’s Winning Edge – a post-London program that prioritised funding to sports thought most likely to reach the podium.
Game behind the Games
In August 2016, journalist Roy Masters reported that AOC-ASC tensions had reached boiling point. In the wake of the “disappointing [Rio] results”, the AOC “has effectively divorced itself” from the ASC.
In December that year, Wylie contacted Coates with a proposal to “reset” the AOC-ASC relationship, but he was rebuked by the latter, who published a 15-page, legalistic rebuttal, trumpeting the AOC’s independence from government.
Coates also contacted the director of the Australian Institute of Sport, Matt Favier, to tell him the AOC would not invite him to be a part of the planning for the 2020 Olympics.
In February 2017, both Wylie and Coates attended the Nitro Athletics Meeting in Melbourne. When Wylie attempted to shake hands with Coates he refused the gesture, telling Wylie that he was a “liar” and a “c***”.
This bitter conflict reverberated to Parliament House. Prime Minister Turnbull interceded to extend Wylie’s position as chair of the ASC, while Roche – about whom Turnbull has a high opinion – announced her nomination for the AOC leadership at the next election in May.
Coates did not appreciate what seemed an ASC-government inspired move to dethrone him as president. He described Roche as Wylie’s “puppet”. The gloves were off – on all sides.
Games of thrones
Roche campaigned on an “athletes first” ticket. She was prepared to forego the $700,000 annual salary paid to Coates, returning that money to Olympic sports.
Sensing the political breeze, Coates announced that it would be his final term as president, but had yet to pinpoint someone “worthy” to follow in his shoes. After 27 years, this was unusual succession planning.
Coates holds two key positions: president of the AOC and vice-president of the International Olympic Committee. In the latter role, he is reputed to advocate robustly on behalf of Australia.
This is an intriguing admission: the vice-president of the IOC is not meant to pursue parochial interests. Yet a blurring of executive roles is, curiously enough, embedded in Olympic governance: for Coates to serve as IOC vice-president, he must concurrently hold the AOC presidency.
Here was the gold in the Coates campaign: should he be supplanted, Australia’s “voice” at the IOC executive would be diminished. From the outset, therefore, the Coates-Roche contest involved protagonists with very unequal political capital.
Coates’ opponents were under no illusion that the numbers were stacked against them. While Roche presented a legitimate contender, Coates had decades of experience and a seat at the IOC table. Tantalisingly, though, Coates’s strongest achievements also contained potential or tangible weaknesses.
First, Coates was rightly lauded for helping bring the Olympics to Sydney. However, by 1999 he faced criticism that some of his gift giving had been tantamount to bribery. A subsequent NSW government inquiry concluded “Sydney’s bid had breached official guidelines”, but there was no evidence of corruption.
Second, the 2000 Games were a financial boon for Coates. In 1996, Michael Knight, the minister for the Olympics, provided the AOC with $100 million in exchange for it relinquishing veto power over the Games’ organising budget.
However, just one year later the AOC made a rather dire financial decision – a $7.2 million investment in a Cairns Casino, of which Coates was chairman. The AOC eventually lost $3.5 million.
For opponents of Coates, recent history provided a more productive focus of criticism. The media, for so long non-committal about AOC governance, was now awash with tip-offs and complaints about improper conduct on the part of the AOC media director, Mike Tancred.
As part of the fallout, Coates was accused of tolerating a culture of workplace bullying. Tancred, who has held the AOC communications role for 18 years, agreed to stand down pending an independent investigation.
Coates, meanwhile, was accused of belittling a female staff member undergoing chemotherapy for cancer: in criticising the woman’s workplace performance, he suggested that she “get out in the real world” because he was not running a “sheltered workshop”. The staff member resigned, which Coates duly accepted.
Upon public disclosure, Coates apologised for using the phrase “sheltered workshop”, which is a slur against people with disabilities, but reminded the press that he is a recipient of the Australian Paralympic medal.
Down to the wire
A virtual who’s who of Australian Olympic sport now lined up in defence of Coates or as advocates for change.
Household names like Herb Elliott and Ric Charlesworth pleaded for stability, while John Bertrand and Dawn Fraser asserted that Coates, while an accomplished Olympic servant, embodied a managerial and cultural paradigm unsuited to the present.
As ever, Coates remained on the offensive, in the fullest sense of the word. In various media appearances, he refuted allegations of a “bullying” culture in the AOC.
Instead, Coates asserted that Fiona de Jong – the principal complainant, who had resigned from her role as AOC chief executive in October 2016 – was not proficient in the job, despite the AOC’s best efforts to provide professional development.
Unsurprisingly, Coates was re-elected by member sport organisations by 58 votes to 35 – a powerful mandate. The opposition campaign to displace him was ineffective; the substance of claims about workplace harassment were, after all, in progress. Would smoke mean fire?
Perhaps most critical to the Coates campaign was endorsement by the Athletes Commission following a “non-unanimous majority decision”. But this was associated with a list of demands:
… a non-executive role for the president and a review of the president’s pay, a truly independent review of the bullying claims, and mending bridges with Swimming Australia and the Australia Sports Commission.
Roche (and Wylie) did not unseat Coates. But they set in motion a debate about how the AOC and its leadership should function. This includes working with, rather than against, the ASC. That would be transformational.
Coates has been returned, but will this be a pyrrhic victory? The Athletes Commission and the public now expect independent investigations about workplace harassment that, if proven, would require a rethink about management within the AOC.