For 32 years, no Australian has had more influence in the international sporting arena than John Coates.
Today, his reign as Olympic chief is over.
He is stepping down as Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president, although it is expected he will still wield significant power from the sidelines.
He remains an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and the vice-president until the Paris 2024 Games. He will also retain a seat on the board of the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Organising Committee, and is the president of the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
While many will miss his unrivalled political and strategic nous, others who have fallen foul of his sometimes caustic approach will be hoping for a softer touch.
Whether those who follow in his footsteps will be able to keep Australia inside the small group of sport’s most powerful global elite is unknown.
What is certain is that Coates’s exit signals the end of an era.
“It might be viewed as such, I suppose,” Coates told The Ticket.
Unusually for Coates, it is also emotional.
“It is emotional. I think you’d accept that and understand that,” he said.
“But I’m very, very pleased with the state of the AOC as I leave it, so all my emotions are good, I think.
“It’s an appropriate time for me to leave.”
Steadying the ship
Coates survived a bitter presidential election in 2017 and a subsequent workplace review following public allegations of a bullying culture at the AOC. He conceded at the time it had damaged Australia’s Olympic brand.
He said he looked back at the time as personally “humiliating”.
The organisation resembled a pitching ship. New senior executives were charged with turning around the AOC’s battered hull.
First Nations recognition, reconciliation, and Olympic school and education programs are some of the areas Coates lists as measurable achievements in the years since.
Most dramatically, he helped to deliver Australia’s third summer Olympic Games, which will be held in Brisbane in 2032.
Brisbane’s opponents were caught napping while the Queensland capital surged ahead, given “preferred candidature” status under the new system of IOC host city selection — one that had been designed by Coates. It proved a winner at home. Elsewhere, it was a more cynical view that prevailed.
Back in 1993, Coates helped deliver the Sydney 2000 Olympics, beating a bid from Beijing by two votes.
It emerged later that the night before the vote the Australian Olympic Committee had offered to pay tens of thousands of dollars to support sports scholarships in two African nations.
Coates has also faced scrutiny over an historic multi-million-dollar investment in the development of a Cairns Casino and for accepting payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as president of the AOC. The belief that the role was “honorary” proved to be a myth.
As Coates reflects on his time as Australia’s Olympic powerbroker, does he see those criticisms any differently?
“Yeah, certainly some of the assistance that the Australian Olympic Committee gave in terms of scholarships [during the Sydney 2000 bid] was blatantly aimed at getting around the restrictions on organising committees providing assistance to countries from which IOC members came,” Coates said.
“I took a punt with the full support of the then-Australian Olympic Committee on the Cairns Casino. That was an opportunity introduced to me by [former Australian prime minister] Bob Hawke when they were opening the Canberra Casino and using the same licensee.
“Maybe that’s been the part of the motivation, though, for all the good governance that surrounds the [Australian Olympic] Foundation these days and all the external advice we have.
“My salary? WelI … I stepped aside from boards increasingly to undertake a full-time role for the AOC. That coincided with a view that many sports were paying their presidents and CEOs … and the AOC executive decided that it was worth doing [that] to enable me to do it.
“There was no way that I could have put six kids through school, and most of them through university, without that. I’m fortunate that the AOC decided that it would have been too difficult for me otherwise.
“I’d like to think I provided good value to them.”
A Coates masterstroke in the delivery of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games involved foregoing an AOC veto right in exchange for $100 million worth of television revenue.
Watchers of all things Olympic, www.insidethegames.biz, this week recalled a quote from the NSW Olympic minister at the time, Michael Knight.
“When you’re negotiating with Coates, you find that he’s always got one more contract,” it said.
Coates appreciates “the compliment” but says there is nothing hidden away anymore.
A time for reflection
There is no memoir planned, apparently, because Coates doesn’t keep ‘copious notes’. He’s never needed to. He has a memory made of steel wrapped in carbon fibre.
Stories roll off his tongue about time spent with global luminaries such as former South African president Nelson Mandela and Australian prime ministers from both sides of politics — all of whom he respects except for Malcolm Fraser due to his call for Australia to boycott the Moscow 1980 Olympics after Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Some Australian athletes did what the government wanted but the AOC did not. In a narrow vote, one that may not have been entirely constitutional, Australia’s Olympic officials took a reduced team of athletes to Russia, who competed as individuals under the neutral flag of the Olympic movement.
“Generally, the leaders of our political parties, other than Malcolm Fraser, have not wanted to use the Games [for political purposes], and it’s been a very good relationship,” he said.
However, that sits in contrast with the IOC’s recent decision, supported by Coates, to urge all sports to ban the inclusion of athletes from Russia and Belarus after the invasion of Ukraine.
“Yeah, well, we’ve had to take extra ordinary decisions to sanction those athletes for the actions of someone else,” Coates said.
It reveals a significant shift inside the IOC, and a personal shift for Coates.
The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, once said they would be “a potent, indirect factor in securing a universal peace”.
Asked whether that still carried any currency, Coates was quick to respond.
“We’ve done a bit better on gender equality than he suggested.”
Women were originally banned from the Games.
Full steam ahead
Coates is part pragmatist, part punter. He is always calculating. Perhaps the biggest gamble he took was committing Japan to hold the Tokyo Olympics during the global COVID-19 pandemic. He was the IOC’s chair of the coordination commission established to oversee preparations for the Games.
“I was always confident we could do it,” he said.
“When you just have to do something, you do it. Boy oh boy, it was not something I anticipated when I was appointed as the chair.
“The number of meetings with Lausanne (the IOC head office] … the number of hook-ups with the rest of the world, the difficult meetings we had with our hosts, but we managed. It was never an option of tossing the towel in. We just had to do it.”
Coates had the support of IOC president Thomas Bach and the deputy chair of the coordination commission and long-time friend Alex Gilady, who is the IOC member from Israel.
Gilady died in mid-April, an event that rocked Coates. Together with Bach, they referred to each other as “the three amigos”. On hearing the news of Gilady’s death, Bach texted Coates the message: “There’s just two of us.”
Bach has flown into Sydney to attend Coates’s farewell dinner. No doubt there will be a glass raised to their recently departed friend.
“I have reflected more than I have in the past,” Coates admits.
“There have been episodes which have just been wonderful in my life. But there’s more finality to this.
And if there was an epitaph wall at the AOC or IOC for former presidents and vice-presidents, what would his say?
“‘I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he said.
“I think that’s it. I’ve got no regrets.”
It may be a more reflective Coates stepping down from the AOC presidency, but only a fool would think he will be any less influential.