04/07/1995 SPORT: 1956 Olympic Games. Melbourne Olympics. Betty Cuthbert winning the 200m from Christa Stubnick.
04/07/1995 SPORT: 1956 Olympic Games. Melbourne Olympics. Betty Cuthbert winning the 200m from Christa Stubnick.

Huge milestone for organisation that helped define nation

"We need to go right back to Edwin Flack, he won two gold medals in athletics at the first modern Olympics in 1896. Then there was the great swimmer Freddie Lane, and Sarah 'Fanny' Durack, our first female champion, who won gold in 1912. Then …"

 

John Coates was only just warming up but I cut him off mid-sentence, thinking he may have misunderstood my question after weeks in self-isolation.

 

I'd actually asked him for a brief history of the most significant moments of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), which celebrates its 100th birthday on Wednesday, so stopped him to repeat the query.

 

Betty Cuthbert wins gold in front of a massive crowd in Melbourne in 1956.
Betty Cuthbert wins gold in front of a massive crowd in Melbourne in 1956.

"Yeah, I understand," he replied.

 

"But the history of the Australian Olympic Federation - now Committee - is the history of the Olympic champions we've produced.

 

"That's really what matters and what people remember, not the administrators."

 

He's right, of course, but still guilty of downplaying the AOC's role in the unforgettable moments that have helped define our nation because the blazers and the athletes are intrinsically linked.

 

It was Coates himself who selected Cathy Freeman to light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in what remains one of the potent symbols of national reconciliation.

 

And two decades earlier, it was the AOC life member Lewis Luxton who cast the deciding vote to send an Australian team to the 1980 Moscow Olympics in clear defiance of then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, a decision which ensured Australia and Greece are the only countries to have attended every Summer Olympics.

Cathy Freeman charges to her famous victory in Sydney in 2000.
Cathy Freeman charges to her famous victory in Sydney in 2000.

Luxton had been considering voting in support of a boycott but changed his mind when Fraser tried to pressure him because nothing irks the fiercely self-reliant AOC more than challenges to its autonomy.

 

A non-profit, non-government organisation, the AOC doesn't ask for - or receive - direct federal funding so lives and dies by its own decisions, and if there's a case that it's got more right than wrong, it's that it's as sprightly as ever at the ripe old age of 100.

 

Founded in 1920, Wednesday night's planned centenary celebration bash has been postponed because of the coronavirus lockdown but the AOC has survived worse and remains in rude health after building Australian sport's biggest investment fund from the windfall of the Sydney Olympics.

 

Coates has been a central figure in that financial success and also in what he says were the two biggest threats to the AOC's independence, the push to skip Moscow then the recent campaign to unseat him as leader.

Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics.
Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics.

Now the AOC's longest serving president after succeeding Kevan Gosper in 1990, Coates has been embroiled in a long running stoush with John Wylie, the head of the government agency which holds the purse strings to sports funding.

 

Former hockey gold medallist Danni Roche, who was a board member of what was then known as the Australian Sports Commission, challenged Coates for the AOC's top job in 2017 and it was an ugly election.

 

But Coates won in a landslide and the AOC's bank balance shows there's been no lasting damage to the brand, with the Sydney lawyer saying only "it's fortunate the good guys won."

 

It hasn't always been pistols at dawn for the AOC and federal politicians.

 

It was the government who established the bench setting Australian Institute of Sport after the team didn't win a single gold medal at Montreal in 1976 and it was mostly public money which funded the hugely successful 1956 Melbourne and 2000 Sydney Olympics.

 

Dubbed the 'Friendly Games', Melbourne was a watershed moment in Australian history, both on and off the field.

John Coates has been in charge for 30 years.
John Coates has been in charge for 30 years.

With the memories of war still fresh, the Games were instrumental in helping promote gender equality and multiculturalism while making Australians feel good about themselves as the host-nation collected 13 golds from legends such as Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Lorraine Crapp, Murray Rose and Jon Hendricks.

 

It wasn't until 44 years later, in Sydney, that Australia won more golds at a single Games., propelled by Freeman herself, Ian Thorpe and so many other household names.

 

The golden tally from Sydney was 16, then four years later in Athens it was 17, though it's the human stories, rather than the weight of numbers, that has Coates looking back on the AOC's first century with fondness.

 

That's why it took almost an hour to reel through every one of Australia's Olympic and Paralympic medallists (Winter and Summer included), adding personal anecdotes about the likes of from Andrew Boy Charlton to Debbie Flintoff King, Dean Lukin, Andrew Hoy and Steve Hooker before finally ending with Chloe Esposito in Rio.

 

"As I explained, it's all about the athletes," he said.

 

"Now, let's talk about the Winter Games. Let's start with Steven Bradbury."

Ron Clarke lights the Olympic flame at the 1956 opening ceremony.
Ron Clarke lights the Olympic flame at the 1956 opening ceremony.
Aussie swimmer Dawn Fraser.
Aussie swimmer Dawn Fraser.


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