Olympic Presidential Drama Unfolds ‘Down Under’ Share PDF Print E-mail
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IOC Vice President John Coates is regarded as one of the leading sports strategists and administrators in the Olympic Movement. Coates has also taken the Olympic Movement in Australia to the forefront of elite sport, much to Australia’s advantage, in his role as President of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC).

Coates, however, is up for re-election as President of the AOC at the weekend and could be forced to surrender his position at the IOC if he loses the vote for AOC presidency.

The election looms as a landmark moment for the Olympic Movement amid concerns of a smear campaign against Coates, concerns for the future independence of the Australian Olympic Committee and Coates’s leading role on several IOC committees addressing key challenges for the Olympic Movement.

Tweets from IOC and Olympic Movement consultant and former marketing director, Michael Payne:

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By Michael Pirrie

The 2017 election season is well underway with the United Kingdom voting in early June, France concluding its polls imminently, and Australia also will soon conduct its own presidential election. Unlike the European polls however that will be dominated by national economic, security and immigration issues, the Australian election will centre on sport and Olympic sport in particular, which probably means far more to most Australians than any domestic general election or poll in Europe ever could.

The performances of Australia’s Olympic legends such as Dawn Fraser, Herb Elliot, Catherine Freeman, Ian Thorpe and many others have traditionally captured the attention and admiration of the home crowds, but it is the drama unfolding off the fields of play that is gripping Australia this time around.

AUSTRALIAN SPORT GOES TO THE POLLS

This election centres on the presidency of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), the pre-eminent sporting organisation in this sports-loving and sports-blessed and obsessed island continent.

The vote for the AOC presidency will be decided in a secret ballot by Australia’s national Olympic sports governing bodies, but in a country that is rarely happier than when winning gold medals at the Olympic Games – even the green and gold bell frogs wear the national colours to show support - the election has become an issue of national focus and importance.

Australia is one of the most successful Olympic nations in the world under John Coates, the incumbent president of Australia’s Olympic Committee, which is also regarded internationally as one of the best performing national Olympic committees, and the election is being closely followed in Olympic and international sporting circles.

HIGH-RISK OLYMPIC ELECTION

The first national Olympic committee presidential election in the post Brexit-Trump era is shaping up as a sports election like no other.

John Coates is one of the world’s most astute and relied upon sports strategists and administrators, and many Australian, Olympic and international sports figures were greatly surprised, puzzled and concerned by the move against him.

OLYMPIC NATION

While Australia is one of the few countries that has been represented at the Olympic Games since 1896, the nation has experienced its most successful period at the Games during the Coates era at the AOC, rising steadily up the Olympic medal table and enhancing its image on the world stage as a small but successful, capable and resourceful nation – on and off the sporting field.

Coates is also Australia’s most talented and experienced international and domestic sports administrator, and his knowledge and understanding of the Olympic Movement, and what he has achieved in leading the Olympic Movement in his country clearly makes him the outstanding candidate to lead the Olympic Movement in Australia.

The challenge to his presidency has a myriad of possible motives, driven by the cross winds and currents of very tribal Conservative (Liberal-National) and Labour Party politics; the bitter Melbourne-Sydney rivalry; and a new government body led economic rationalist approach to sports funding for Olympic Games that favours the biggest sports, which Coates strongly opposes.

Timing can be almost everything in life, in sport, and especially in an election campaign, and allegations of bullying raised in the campaign increased the stakes dramatically.

The allegations, by a former AOC executive, did not involve John Coates in any way but were made against the AOC’s media director Mike Tancred. The allegations remain unproven pending an official inquiry but have caused collateral damage to Coates.

The full circumstances and details surrounding the allegations have not been disclosed, and the impression of a toxic work place at the AOC’s Sydney headquarters created by the allegations is understood to have greatly upset AOC staff who enjoy working at the organisation and would like to see John Coates re-elected.

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ELECTION BATTLE

The election campaign has become a battle of personalities and perceptions rather than a battle of big ideas over the future of the Olympic Movement and sport in Australia, which is important for the country’s international image, prestige, lifestyle, economy and morale.

Instead of a process to determine the best candidate with the best plans to develop Olympic sports, the election looks more like an aggressive PR-driven campaign to remove Coates from the AOC presidency for political and personal reasons.

STARK CHOICE

The choice facing the national governing bodies in Australia in this election is stark, with some Olympic sports believed to be surprised by the challenger’s lack of knowledge and experience of the Olympic system, their sports, and close links to the Australian Government’s Sports Commission, which wants a greater say in Australia’s Olympic Games planning and preparations, leading to concerns about a loss of independence.

A recent conversation between the head of one of Australia’s smaller Olympic sports governing bodies and the two AOC presidential candidates provides a snap shot of the high stakes and risks involved for the nation’s Olympic sports bodies and their athletes in this election.

While the challenger to Coates’s position is said to have shown little knowledge about the sport concerned, the head of the national governing body said he was stunned by the detailed personal understanding and information that Coates was able to reel off about the issues confronting the sport and its development in Australia as well as key athletes involved in the sport.

This may hep to explain why Australia’s legendary Americas Cup hero skipper, John Bertrand, declined an offer to contest the AOC presidency as part of the plot to unseat Coates.

A senior figure in the state office of another smaller Olympic sport governing body said that “without John Coates, my sport would not exist or have a future in the Olympics.”

The sports governing body representative said it was highly regrettable there had been no public debate in the election campaign so far about the funding priorities of the Federal Government’s Sports Commission for Olympic sport.

These and other reports claiming that a number of Melbourne identities were initially approached to stand against Coates reinforce the view that the campaign may have been part of a tactical plan to sideline Coates and his supporters rather than a genuine attempt to improve Olympic sports.

Coates has an extraordinary record of success in the Olympic movement internationally and in Australia, which has forced his opponents to find other areas in which to attack his presidency.

Initially, these included his age (Coates is just 3 years older than IOC President Thomas Bach), salary, and long term and tenure in office.

Coates’s opponents have not yet publicly released details of plans and programmes to prepare and fund Australia’s Olympic sports and athletes for international competition and success.

These are all areas of key interest to Olympic sports governing body leaders who will vote in the presidential election.

These are also areas that Coates has excelled in developing for the Australian Olympic movement as part of a wider transformation of sports programmes, facilities, athlete career development pathways and education, and greater access to world championship and Olympic level international sports competitions and experiences that has taken place during his term in office.

OLYMPIC CREDENTIALS

Coates supporters believe opponents have tried to remove his significant record in office from the campaign through a PR operation designed to focus attention on the bullying allegations, despite Coates having no involvement, and try to make it difficult for Coates to play to his core strengths and constituents.

The Olympic Games takes 7 years to organise and plan and is probably the most complex piece of project management in the world, and John Coates has played key roles in two of the most successfully Olympiads in recent times.

Coates was chief architect of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, of which The Times of London said: "I invite you to suggest a more successful event anywhere in the peace time history of mankind.”

Coates was involved in just about every major planning decision for the Sydney 2000 Games, the biggest and most important peacetime event in the history of contemporary Australia.

Caught in the middle of the Salt Lake City bid bribery scandal and early delays in planning and construction that would almost cripple the Athens Games, much was also riding for the IOC on Sydney 2000, the success of which helped to rescue the Olympic Movement in a period of unprecedented crisis.

Coates also played a key role in the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, helping to oversee preparations for the London Games on the IOC’s Co-ordination Commission, and it is this unique involvement, insight and experience in the highly complex technical and operational planning and stakeholder relationships needed to deliver the Olympic Games that Coates has used to turn Australia into a leading Olympic nation.

OLYMPIC MISSION

Coates, an Olympic purist, has also used sport as a catalyst for change in wider society, a core goal of the Olympic Movement. This has included modifying the AOC’s constitution to recognise Australia’s Aboriginal heritage and commitment to sport.

Coates and Kevan Gosper, also a former AOC leader and IOC Vice President, have helped to introduce Olympic education and sports programmes to tackle critical social and health issues including childhood and adult obesity and HIV/AIDS in neighbouring Oceania nations.

Coates is also an outspoken critic of corruption in sport, boldly describing Russia’s anti-doping systems as “rotten to the core” in the countdown to the Rio Olympic Games.

While Coates’s opponents have also tried to down play the significant impact and influence of his position in the Olympic Movement as IOC vice president – which he will lose if he is not re-elected as AOC president – the fact is Australia’s standing as a leading Olympic nation has much to do with the dual roles Coates occupies at the AOC and IOC, and the powerful connections and leadership that Coates has provided through these roles.

Australia does not have a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, which arguably leaves John Coates as one of the country’s leading figure of influence on the global stage as a vice president of the IOC, which governs the Olympic Movement, effectively the United Nations of sport with more member nations and territories than the UN.

Coates has strongly supported and pushed - from a position of influence rarely achieved on the world sporting stage by an Australian administrator - for the inclusion of new sports on the Olympic programme that will provide new opportunities for the next generation of young athletes to participate in a greater range of sports for women and men in Australia and other parts of the world at the Olympic Games. These include surfing, baseball and softball and roller sports.

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ELECTION EPICENTRE

The focus by Coates’s opponents on AOC workplace conditions and governance has also distracted attention from the real issue at the heart of this election campaign - the battle for control and independence of the Olympic Movement in Australia.

This centres around the sharply contrasting views, vision and philosophies for sport in Australia as held on the one hand by John Coates, an avid life long sports fan and Australia’s most successful self-made sports administrator who parlayed his skills as a lawyer to become an icon of professional sports administration, bringing a fearlessness and forensic approach to sports management and negotiation never seen in Australia before.

Coates has used his formidable professional skills and instincts for commercial investment, deal making, fundraising and sponsor engagement to bring in tens of millions of dollars to the AOC that has provided long-term financial security for new Olympic sports programmes and systems that have already benefited thousands of Olympic athletes and a growing number of new and smaller sports.

Coates’s astute financial planning has also protected the independence of the AOC, which is required under the Olympic charter, although this independence and autonomy can frustrate government bureaucrats and heads of government agencies involved in sport.

On the other side of the feud is John Wylie, successful Melbourne investment banker and head of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), which uses business investment principles to help determine sports funding.

The ASC model has seen more money going to the bigger sports regarded as most likely to deliver a return on investment in the form of gold medals at the Olympic Games; an approach not popular with smaller sports which see this as a liberal free market Darwinian Survival of The Fittest approach to the allocation of sports funding.

This approach formed the basis of the ASC’s ‘Winning Edge’ funding model for the Rio Olympic Games, which failed to deliver the number of medals expected from the funding allocated, a disappointing outcome for the Olympic team and an expectant Olympic nation.

OLYMPIC VISION

Coates advocates a more inclusive model of sports funding, believing that more boats will set afloat with Olympic medals on a rising tide of funding and participation in the smaller sports as well as the biggest.

He is a strong believer in the need for mass participation in sport in communities and in schools and of constant international success across a wide range of sports.

Coates envisages a broader and more diverse Olympic landscape for the future; one that can sustain more new sports that are more relevant to the lives of young people, and believes every Australian boy and girl should have the opportunity to represent their country at the highest level of sport, the Olympic Games, if possible.

Strong government support can provide the basis for the all important sport and recreation triangle – mass community participation at the base, which provides a bigger pool of talent, and significant community benefits, and, at the apex, the champions, who have come from the base but then later help to maintain the base by projecting their influence back down the triangle as role models inspiring more young people to participate in sport.

FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE

In many ways the architect of the modern day Olympic Movement in Australia, Coates is a popular figure amongst Olympians and sports federation leaders and officials, but much less so amongst the Melbourne establishment linked to the Australian Sports Commission, which is emerging as a new, alternative centre of power for decision and policy making as well as funding in elite sport and wants a greater role in the activities of the AOC.

This could threaten the independence of the Australian Olympic Movement, which John Coates is required to defend as leader of the AOC under the Olympic Charter.

The campaign against Coates is also highly localised with almost all attacks on Coates emanating from Melbourne by critics linked to the ASC and former conservative party politicians and establishment power brokers who are believed to want a greater role for Melbourne in deciding Australia’s Olympic future, including a possible bid by Melbourne for the Olympic Games; a bid ironically that would be more likely to succeed with Coates still at the helm of the AOC and in position at the IOC.

CONCLUSION

Coates has described the move against him as a vindictive smear campaign but has otherwise kept his power dry, quietly putting his position and plans for the future of Olympic sport in Australia directly to the governing bodies.

This has been done without the services and support of an expensive Melbourne-based political lobby and PR company that has led the promotion of the challenger in what has been an unprecedented public relations operation for an election of this kind.

Coates might lose the PR battle but still win the election by appealing to the electorate in ways that demonstrate his vast experiences and knowledge across all key areas of domestic and international Olympic sport and politics; and, importantly, by showing how the domestic and international spheres of the worldwide Olympic Movement interact and influence each other and which only Coates can uniquely bridge to help sports governing bodies in Australia.

STRONG & STABLE LEADERSHIP

The national Olympic sports governing bodies that make up the Olympic Movement in Australia have a high stakes decision to make on 6 May - whether to unseat John Coates, who has been a fearless and proven defender of Olympic sports and governing bodies, and who has presided over a golden era for Olympic sport in Australia and built a prosperous financial base that ensures the financial independence of Olympic sports well into the future  - or vote for a banker and medal winning Olympian, but who lacks detailed knowledge and experience of many Olympic sports and their needs, and the crucial networks and relationships to gain influence in the Olympic Movement but which take years to acquire.

The challenger’s close links to the Federal Government’s Australian Sport Commission, which wants to assert greater control over the AOC and will place the independence the Olympic Movement in Australia – and the sports - at potential risk will also be crucial to the vote.

The sports governing bodies must decide which of the two candidates, in the parlance of the current UK general election campaign, can provide “strong and stable” leadership in these economically and politically uncertain times.

It is understood that some Olympic sporting bodies and athletes are extremely disappointed and disturbed at the damage caused to Australia’s Olympic image and reputation by the aggressive PR campaign and attacks on Coates and the AOC during the election.

The Australian public and sports fans want to see value for money and they want to see their athletes performing well in international competition, especially at the Olympic Games.

Australians also don’t like politicians or government bureaucrats to interfere with their sports, and instead of meddling in the affairs of the AOC, may think the Australian Sports Commission would be better off understanding why its “Winning Edge” programme did not work in Rio last year and whether another approach should be implemented for Tokyo 2020.

 

About the author:

Michael Pirrie is an international communications consultant and commentator on major sporting events including the Olympic Games. Michael served as Executive Adviser to London 2012 Olympic Games Organising Committee Chairman, Seb Coe, and has worked on numerous major international sporting projects and events. These include the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, Inaugural Afro-Asian Games, European Games, and the Florida 2016 Invictus Games for war wounded defence services personnel, amongst others.

 
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