Advice for rookies on Coates’ Olympic board
AOC board member Nicole Livingstone, who has fallen out of favour with John Coates, in Melbourne this week.
The Australian12:00AM April 26, 2017
CHIP LE GRAND
Victorian Chief Reporter Melbourne
On the day she joined the Australian Olympic Committee, Nicole Livingstone was offered blunt advice by an experienced member about how to get along inside John Coates’s board room: keep your mouth closed.
Having swum for Australia at three Olympics, sat on the AOC athletes’ commission for eight years and served on government and sport boards, Livingstone was taken aback by the suggestion that her interests, along with those of the AOC, would best be served by keeping her views to herself. To Coates’s credit, when Australia’s Olympic supremo heard about the incident, he sought out Livingstone and assured her that having supported her appointment to the board, he valued any contribution she had to make.
Four years later, Coates has dumped Livingstone from his board ticket as he tries to extend his 27-year hold over the AOC until the next Olympics in Tokyo.
In the absence of another explanation from the AOC president, Livingstone’s loss of favour underscores the jaded wisdom of what she was told that first day.
“I am not afraid to ask questions; I am not afraid to speak up,’’ Livingstone told The Australian. “The spirit in which feedback is intended probably isn’t the spirit in which is it always received.
“I think that is reflected in me not being part of John’s preferential ticket.’’
Coates’s position atop Australia’s Olympic movement is facing an unexpected, unprecedented challenge from Danielle Roche, a member of the 1996 gold medal-winning Hockeyroos team, businesswoman and sports administrator whom Livingstone knows and admires from their time together on the State Sports Centre Trust.
Coates and Livingstone at a Murray Rose tribute dinner in 2013.
Although Roche was given little chance of toppling Coates at the start of her campaign, her decision to run against one of the most powerful men in world sport has subjected the AOC to rare public scrutiny.
The emerging picture of stale leadership, skewed spending priorities and a toxic workplace culture is giving the 40 summer and winter Olympic sports serious pause for thought as they decide how to cast their votes in the May 6 ballot.
The response from the usually politically astute Coates has been telling. He has publicly recounted foul language he used to confront Australian Sports Commission boss John Wylie at an athletics meet last summer. He has accused the federal government of plotting to take control of Australia’s Olympic movement and its $146.4 million investment fund.
In a personal letter to sports chiefs two nights ago, Coates defended the culture of the AOC and said he had been defamed by criticisms of how Australia conducts its Olympic business.
He complained of a “co-ordinated and sadly vindictive campaign to damage me personally and to tarnish all that has been achieved at the AOC’’.
At the time of writing, Coates was resisting pressure to cut loose Mike Tancred, the AOC media director and his most loyal ally, who is at the centre of a bullying and harassment complaint by former AOC chief executive Fiona de Jong.
Livingstone says she is prepared to work for an AOC board chaired by Coates if he is re-elected for what he promises will be his final term. She also makes clear her support for Roche’s reform agenda.
“We need to revitalise the AOC,’’ she said. “A review of governance needs to take place that includes maximum terms for all office bearers. A change of culture also needs to take place. We need to collaborate with all the sports and the Australian Sports Commission, we need to collaborate with the sports institutes as well. In order to have those kinds of change, we need an agent of change. I see Danni as that agent of change.’’
Livingstone has fond memories of her involvement in Olympic teams. She picked up one silver and two bronze medals and was part of a positive, supportive team environment.
Some athletes found this missing from Australia’s involvement in Rio, where a dysfunctional AOC leadership appeared, at times, to be working against its own Olympians.
Coates and Tancred were particularly antagonistic towards the swim team, which had undergone a cultural overhaul in the wake of the Stilnox scandal, the misuse of sleeping tablets by some team members in the lead-up to the London Games. At an AOC meeting before Rio, Coates passed around a newspaper clipping about the Stilnox scandal, circled in Texta as a pointed reminder of previous sins.
In Rio, Livingstone was working for the host broadcaster. “The feedback I had at the Olympic Games was that the Olympic committee were acting like big brother.’’ She has since pushed the case for the AOC to be less paternalistic in Tokyo.
Other AOC directors, including athletes’ commission chairman Steve Hooker, have voiced their concerns that athletes should be treated better by team management in Tokyo. Shortly after Rio, Coates wanted to reappoint Kitty Chiller as Tokyo chef de mission but was rebuffed by his own board.
Livingstone said Chiller worked hard in difficult circumstances in Rio. She wants the AOC to look further afield for Tokyo and drop its requirement that the chef de mission be chosen from its own board members.
She said her motivation to stay involved in Olympic politics was to help the sports federations and improve the experience of athletes chosen to represent their country.
“When I was successful in the 1980s and 90s, it was smaller and less complex but everyone was on the same page in terms of what we wanted to achieve,’’ she said. “The sports commission, the AOC, all of the institutes of sport: everyone was trying to get the same, great results for our athletes.
“If you speak to some of the athletes from 2016, many of them say that second week was not the best week of their life; it was quite difficult for them. They still have difficulty reconciling why.’’
In the second week of the Rio Games, Coates publicly blamed the ASC’s funding model for Australia’s disappointing performance and ridiculed the pre-Games medal predictions of Wylie and Swimming Australia president John Bertrand.
Livingstone chairs Swimming Australia’s high-performance committee, which is debating whether to bring its athletes home from Tokyo immediately after the end of the swimming program. This would end a long tradition of swimmers remaining in the athletes’ village in the second week of the Games to support teammates in other sports.
Livingstone says an exodus of talented staff from the AOC suggests there could be a cultural problem with the organisation. She is one of three board members who requested an emergency board meeting, to be conducted tonight by telephone, to discuss the unresolved bullying complaint by de Jong against Tancred, and other complaints against the long-serving AOC spokesman.
More broadly, she wants the AOC to rethink its role in Australian sport: to expand its focus from the two weeks it has custody of winter and summer Olympic teams to what it can do across an entire four-year period to help national sport federations realise the potential of their athletes.
Under Roche’s agenda, sports and athletes funded almost entirely by the ASC will benefit from extra AOC money saved from trimming administrative costs. This includes $716,500 in consultancy fees paid to Coates for providing his services as AOC president, previously an honorary role. Roche has promised to do the job for nothing.
Coates refers to himself as executive president and retains responsibility for managing the AOC’s brand management, sponsorships, licensing and media arrangements. Livingstone wants the president’s role to be limited to representing the Olympic movement and chairing the board and for the incoming chief executive, former Australian Sailing chief Matt Carroll, to manage all of the AOC’s operations.
She said the AOC could do more to introduce the sports federations to potential sponsors and broadcast partners and lighten their administrative burdens.
Its core function, currently derided as a high-priced travel agent, should be to help Australian Olympic sports flourish and thrive. “To work for the Australian Olympic Committee should be the best job in the world,’’ she said. “It is not John’s AOC, it is not Danni’s AOC, it is not my AOC; it belongs to the national federations and the members.’’