Australia’s Olympics-sized brawl: a tale of prestige, power and big money

Geoff Lemon
A vote for the Australian Olympic Committee presidency this Wednesday could see John Coates being brought down. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

When comedian John Clarke died this month, the most frequent tribute clips came from his ABC television series The Games. In the lead-up to Sydney’s 2000 Olympics, Clarke parodied the organisers with vicious precision. It worked because the likes of John Coates and Kevan Gosper were so readily mocked, with their propensity to public gaffes and the often amateurish appearance of their organisations. For Olympics previous, Australian authorities seemingly only had to arrange a stack of bad tracksuits and clip-on koalas. Now they were building the biggest show on earth. It felt like asking Rooty Hill RSL to run the Opera House.

Skip to the present day, and the scenes could have fuelled Clarke for another season. At the centre remains Coates, as he has since 1990, but a vote for the Australian Olympic Committee presidency this Wednesday could see challenger Danielle Roche bring him down. The contest has become intense. At first it brings to mind that Henry Kissinger misattribution about the bitterness of fights for no real power: congratulations, you’re the lord of slalom canoe events in all the land. But at stake is prestige, authority and very real money.

In terms of sticking around, Coates has parallels with Sepp Blatter or Juan Antonio Samaranch – in the job so long that the public is largely sick of them, yet so connected in their own political sphere that they can’t be removed. When any long-term autocrat finally faces a credible threat, it can surge in an instant. Coates is up against this kind of momentum, as media coverage and relevant parties speak of change and renewal.

But while attention is on Coates, spare some for his key rival, John Wylie. The AOC’s job is to be intermediary between the International Olympic Committee and Australia’s 40 federations representing Olympic sports. It is independent of government, as the IOC requires member committees to be. Wylie heads the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), the federal government body in charge of sport development and funding.

As expressed in a letter to Coates in December 2016, Wylie wants more influence over the Olympic body, its funding, and its appointments. In a January reply, Coates rejected this publicly and at length as a breach of independence, before the pair had an angry verbal altercation at an athletics meet in February. Then came the AOC leadership challenge from Roche, who also happens to be a board member of Wylie’s ASC.

None of this means the AOC leadership flaws aren’t extensive. On available evidence, Coates backs his allies beyond reason while marginalising those he doesn’t regard as loyal. Media director and Coates diehard Mike Tancred was the subject of bullying complaints by multiple colleagues, but nothing was done for months. Only when rebel board members called an extraordinary meeting in the past week did Tancred stand down and an investigation begin. Board member Kitty Chiller, meanwhile, was a PR disaster as chef de mission at the Rio Olympics, only for Coates to immediately propose giving her the same job for Tokyo 2020.

Leaked emails have shown the president’s unpleasant and abrasive side, including a group email to colleagues deriding an employee with cancer. Staff turnover in recent years has been extreme. The Tancred inquiry will be independent, but a broader investigation into the AOC’s workplace environment has been tasked to incoming chief executive Matt Carroll, an absurd job to expect someone starting a new position to be able to do impartially.

Then there’s the presidential pay packet, an annual “consultancy” of $716,500 that dwarfs the amounts the AOC pays to entire sports, let alone individual athletes, paid in addition to the lavish allowances Coates gets as vice-president of the IOC. While he has argued that the board suggested his payment as compensation for corporate posts that he resigned, for a wealthy individual filling that kind of role it’s a terrible look.

All this makes a pretty compelling case for change. Really though, these problems lie parallel to the current power struggle. The question is, what would change entail in its proposed form? What would ASC influence over the Olympic program mean? Like Coates, Wylie seems to enjoy positions of power and prestige. He has headed corporations and the MCG Trust. He runs the board of the State Library of Victoria, handing out bequests for various lovely things with his name on them. He was behind bringing Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables manuscript to Melbourne, for an exhibition in which the State Library unsuccessfully went against its standard policy and charged for entry.

He’s clearly a man of influence. Given Wylie’s business connections, it’s interesting that Coates has been criticised by Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, who’s a director of Equestrian Australia, and Australian Rugby Union director Ann Sherry, who used to be Bank of Melbourne’s chief executive. Neither said which way their federations would vote in the AOC election, but their voices carry weight. Wylie also has strong Liberal party connections, so it’s interesting that federal sports minister Greg Hunt renewed his ASC role shortly after the February argument with Coates, in what could be read as a public taking of sides.

So what does Wylie want? There was no doubt that his December letter to Coates, smooth as it was in language, was at least in part a power-play. His “wish to develop and fund joint programs with the AOC” could be read to mean that in a period of tight funding, access to AOC resources would make the ASC’s job easier. He also wants a say in management – for instance, choosing the chef de mission. Wylie’s language is that of venture capital and dividend, seeing “the choice of person in this lead role as having a significant bearing on the final preparation and delivery of an Olympic team in whom we have been the major investor”.

There is the suggestion of having more individuals who serve on both boards simultaneously. Then there’s the economic rationalism of the Winning Edge strategy, which prioritises money to those sports more likely to produce medals. It might not have gelled with Pierre de Coubertin, he of “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part”; it has to be conceded that Taking Part Edge doesn’t really have the same ring.

These are some of the areas that Coates was right to slap down in his return letter. “My difficulty with [Winning Edge]” he wrote, “is that the AOC executive has a fiduciary duty to support and hopefully effect the Olympic representation and participation of all 40 of our national member federations.” As for the AOC becoming more entwined with government, this naturally means its objectives can be compromised by the partisan demands of the day. Aside from Wylie’s stated aims, but there’s no knowing what else might be desired if the ASC did gain more control. Then there’s the issue that the ASC has a responsibility for all sport in Australia, of which Olympic sport is just one part.

Of course when it comes to public image – such as avoiding a repeat of the chef de mission missteps in Rio – that wouldn’t be such an issue if the AOC was more accountable, or its president more able to be swayed. So the dilemma continues, with Coates having proved unable to contain himself when his province was threatened. His sense of self, his power, the perks they entail, are all on the line, including his IOC position that he has waited so many years to attain. His personal blow-up at Wylie came under that pressure, but abusing his rival in front of assorted dignitaries now looks like the point where support really started to slip away.

The thing about autocrats is that they always seem eternal, right up until the moment that they’re not. All it takes to bring one down is the first whiff that their removal is possible. This is why they’re always so disproportionate in quashing dissent. So when the opportunity comes up, when momentum swings that way, it always feels like a matter of urgency to act on it. Still, for all that, it really pays to have an idea what you’re installing in their place.

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