Australian sport has its own Donald Trump. That is all that can reasonably be concluded from the thrust of an interview given by Australian Olympic Committee overlord John Coates to The Australian Financial Review this week. It begins with his terse exchange with Australian Sports Commission chairman John Wylie when their paths crossed at the Nitro athletics meeting in Melbourne in February.
That clash is not news. What is extraordinary is Coates’ account of it, self-reporting his aggressive posturing, his snarls and his almost triumphal flourish when Wylie offers his hand: “I don’t shake hands with liars. I don’t shake hands with c—s.”
For the first time in his 26 years as AOC supremo, Coates is under siege for his job. His challenger is a woman, the accomplished former Olympian and businesswoman Danni Roche. Rumbling away in the background are three allegations of bullying brought by female staffers against other AOC executives in recent years as well as the abrupt departures of board member Nick Green and chief executive Fiona de Jong. You might think in these charged circumstances that Coates would shy away from a public airing of his privately earthy manner. It amounts to a charm offensive without the charm. But he either is unaware or doesn’t care.
It’s not just style. The publication of the AOC’s annual report this week again highlights a matter of substance that has long been a sore point and now has broken out like a rash. El Presidente Coates gets paid $720,000 a year for a post that in some other countries is honorary and Roche says she would do for $100,000, ploughing the other $600,000 back into sports. Coates’ pay packet has doubled since Sydney 2000, though Australia’s Olympic performance has declined sharply in that span and by one metric in Rio last year was at its lowest ebb since the nadir of Montreal 1976.
It’s not just quantum, either. Reckoned one way, the AOC’s administrative costs, including the salaries of Coates and two other executives and the lease of its Sydney harbourside HQ, account for almost half its revenue, as concluded by accountants who examined the published accounts for Fairfax Media this week. The AOC spends 70 per cent more on its admin than on sending away Olympic teams every two years, its principal remit.
Coates disputes this calculation. In a letter to Olympic bodies around the country, he says it ignores future revenue already locked in, and that the real cost of administration is more like 33 per cent. Bless! Whichever way you slice the pie chart, not nearly as much of the pie is getting to the athletes as you might expect. Or as Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones (an old antagonist of Coates) said this week: “That’s OK, the athletes are being hit only by a bus, not a concrete truck.”
Prima facie, funding of athletes is the burning issue. The AOC raises millions through the private sector, but only a trickle reaches the sports, with even less slated between now and Tokyo 2020. The ASC distributes government money, which in these pinched times will remain limited. Late last year, Wylie proposed that the two bodies pool their resources, but Coates rejected this, seeing it as a grab for the AOC’s nest egg, bequeathed at Sydney 2000. They also disagree about funding priorities: the AOC advocates wide, but shallow, the ASC narrow and deep.
The tension between the bodies is long-standing, and even has ancient overtones of Sydney-versus-Melbourne, AFL-versus-NRL and Labor-versus-Liberal. It predates Wylie and is not going to be resolved by Coates, who sees Roche as a Wylie stooge and has said so.
So next month to the ballot box. You might think this is a no-brainer: Coates, vastly experienced, grandiosely decorated, but bumptious, polarising and ossified, versus Roche, the face of change at a time when something must change. But the voting system is byzantine, giving far greater weight to handball and wrestling, for instance, than swimming, and Coates, wielding carrot and stick, has worked it adroitly for a long time. The many minor sports are understandably loathe to declare their positions, but observers and students say the race has tightened dramatically.
But, as if anyone needs to be reminded, Trump did win.