Behind Australia’s Deeply Divided Olympic Culture, There’s A Bloody Battle To Grasp Control

Danni Roche must
have the most tired fingers in Australia right about
She seems to be developing a bit of hoarseness in
her voice, too. Roche, 46, is the Melbourne businesswoman,
Australian Sports Commission board member, and Atlanta 1996
Olympic hockey gold medallist who is challenging longstanding
Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates at the AOC
election on Saturday.

To win, she needs to convince representatives of 40 sports that
she is worthy of their support. When HuffPost Australia
contacted Roche this week, she was roughly halfway through a
long, long list of calls — and still dialling furiously.

Roche didn’t have time to chat. No problem. Sometimes your
interview subject tells you everything without saying a word.
And what Danni Roche effectively told us is that she’s busy
selling herself like her life depends on it. But will it work?

The Age

Roche’s candidacy for the AOC presidency was only announced in
March, but already, it seems like this thing has dragged on as
long as last year’s U.S. election campaign. It’s certainly been
not much less feisty.

Roche is is extremely well-connected in both business and
sports administration. Yet she’s managed to cast herself as the
outsider in this race, as the fresh face untainted by politics
and what she’s cleverly framed as the excesses of the John
Coates regime.

As Roche’s public profile has increased, so have the attacks on
the AOC and its culture. Revelations emerged of poor behaviour
by John Coates who demeaned people with disabilities (he has
since apologised unreservedly), and of of bullying by Coates’ loyal media chief Mike Tancred, who
has been stood down pending an investigation.

The long list of allegations against Tancred was contained in a
complaint lodged by former AOC CEO Fiona de Jong in December.
De Jong spoke out in April (saying the complaint had not been
acted upon quickly enough). Olympic insiders believe the timing
was no coincidence.

All of this created a sense of public distrust in the AOC,
fuelling public hunger for a thorough AOC clean-out. But the
public don’t vote on the AOC president.

Getty Images De Jong in Rio
before she quit the AOC.

The culture of the
AOC is only one front in this battle.
Another key
issue is money. Roche says she won’t accept a cent of the
$700,000-plus salary paid to John Coates, which is all very
noble. But it’s not as if Coates has no measurable achievements
to show for his generous pay package. Indeed, the 66-year-old
former lawyer’s number one trump card is finances. Under John
Coates, the AOC has grown filthy rich.

Coates squeezed $88 million out of the NSW government for the
marketing rights to the Sydney Olympics. That money has been
invested prudently, and the AOC now has $146 million in its war
chest. This, despite the distribution of over $105 million to
Olympic athletes and teams since 2000.

It’s a source of great pride to John Coates that the
organisation he’s presided over for 27 years is independent of
government funding and, he would argue, political influence.

Coates, who is also a vice-president of the International
Olympic Committee, is equally proud of the influence he can
exert overseas on behalf of Australia. He has spent much of
this week talking up initiatives like his push to get
Australian teams involved in the Asian Games — which are like
a regional version of the Olympics, where competition is of a
much higher level than, say, the Commonwealth Games.

“Stick with me and I’ll deliver you the world” is his implicit
message. Roche, cleverly, has countered this by effectively
saying “stick with me and I’ll deliver you a better-run

Roche might also be saying “I’ll also being you a better medal
tally”. That’s a lot of what this fight is about: Which sports
should get what?

Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters
Coates recently, seated alongside Tokyo 2020 Games organising
committee head Yoshiro Mori. Caotes fans say his influence
helps Australian sport in all sorts of ways.

Australia’s medal tally has slipped at recent Games. After a
record 16 gold medals in Sydney and a new high mark of 17 in
Athens, Australia won just eight golds at both London 2012 and
Rio 2016. We all know that that money buys sporting success. So
how best to allocate limited resources in the Olympic arena?

Roche has made a big issue of Coates’ salary, arguing it’s
another $3 million that could go towards funding sports every
four years. But it’s a pretty small figure compared to the $250
million in taxpayer funds distributed by the Australian Sports
Commission to various sports in the last Olympic cycle.

The real issue which has Roche and Coates at loggerheads is how
to disperse the ASC millions?

Coates was super critical of the ASC after Rio, where Australia
was expected to do much better. He argued that its “Winning
edge” program — which funnelled funds into marquee sports like
swimming, rowing and cycling — had failed to deliver.

He had a point. Australia was tipped to win 11 swimming gold
medals in Rio: we won three. We were tipped for cycling glory
after nearly toppling England at the World Championships before
the Olympics, but won just two minor medals while England
claimed six golds. Meanwhile we struck unexpected gold in
smaller sports like shooting and modern pentathlon.

Coates has always argued for a greater spread of funding across
the minor sports, and this may yet prove to be his lifeline. To
understand why, you need to get the voting system.

Getty Images Olympic gold
medallist and former pole vaulter Steve Hooker chairs the
Athletes’ Commission, which has just endorsed Coates by the
skin of his teeth.

It’s super simple. In addition to the votes of the 13 AOC
executive members and Athletes’ Commission chair,
representatives of each of the 33 sports in Tokyo, and the
seven sports at the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in
PyeongChang, South Korea, will have two votes each on Saturday.

With one AOC executive member away and ineligible for proxy,
there are 93 votes in total, 80 of them coming from the sports

Under this system, swimming is no more powerful than, say,
shooting or modern pentathlon. Is it any wonder Danni Roche is
frantically making 40 phone calls this week? Or that Coates can
feel confident he’s got unwavering support in certain quarters?

In a fascinating eleventh hour development, the
Athletes Commission issued a statement late on Thursday saying
it supported Coates. The statement read in part:

“Danni’s platform has raised a number of issues that we, as
an Athletes’ Commission, and the broader athlete population,
have passionate views on.

The overwhelming response from the athlete population and
alumni was that there is a desire for change. Opinions
differed as to how this change should best be achieved. In a
non-unanimous majority decision, the Commission voted to
support the re-election of John Coates.”

Its support for Coates, however, is both conditional and
temporary. Led by its chair, the former pole vaulter Steve
Hooker (above), the Commission said:

“The Athletes’ Commission supports a planned and strategic
transition of John Coates out of the Presidency. Any
succession plan should aim to cultivate a number of
candidates who the sports can vote on at a future AGM. This
succession plan should involve John Coates sharing his
knowledge and mentoring the next generation of leaders within
the Australian Olympic family.”

In other words, bring on the future. They’re just not sure
Danni Roche is that future.

Whatever happens on Saturday, the AOC will doubtless experience
a culture change after this election. A new era of transparency
can be expected. Whether John Coates has two reasons for
celebration on his 67th birthday this Sunday remains to be


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Behind Australia’s Deeply Divided Olympic Culture, There’s A Bloody Battle To Grasp Control

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