John Coates does not need much of an introduction.
- Coates was a key figure in Brisbane’s 1992 Summer Olympics bid, which lost out to Barcelona
- The IOC has designated Brisbane as the preferred candidate city to host the 2032 Olympics
- Coates says he is confident Brisbane can keep costs down if it does host the Games
He is recognised in global sporting circles as Australia’s most influential sports administrator, possessing an understanding of how to wield power and play politics.
If politics was a chess game, Coates would be its grandmaster.
He has been Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president since 1990, having only been challenged once for that role in 30 years.
Coates is also International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president, president of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS) — which governs the powerful sports court known as the CAS — and chair of the coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
But when Brisbane failed to win an IOC vote to host the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, which were awarded to Barcelona in 1986, Coates was by his own admission “badly hurt”.
He had relocated his young family from Sydney to Brisbane ahead of the vote and was determined to succeed.
At the time, Coates was adept at navigating the domestic sports scene but may have been a little green when it came to IOC politics.
What he has learned in the years since turned the 1992 loss into a potential 2032 victory for Brisbane.
The only way the city can fail now is if the State or Federal governments renege on their early promises to commit to the delivery of the Games.
“I had become a vice-president of the AOC in 1985,” Coates told The Ticket from Brisbane this week.
“I left my legal practice to come and work for (then-Brisbane lord mayor) Sallyanne Atkinson and run the Brisbane bid for ’92.
“I moved my family up here in late ’86 — the two kids at the time, another one a week away, and we came up here and I worked with Brisbane for the last year [of the bid].
Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch was the IOC president at the time of the bid.
“Obviously we weren’t going to do better than a Samaranch-led Barcelona and a very strong Paris [bid],” Coates said.
“But we learned a lot, which was then carried over for Melbourne and then Sydney.”
While Melbourne lost to Atlanta in the race for the 1996 Olympics, Sydney beat Beijing 45-43 in the votes to win the right to host the 2000 Games.
But that success did not diminish Coates’s sense of unfinished business for Brisbane.
It would be wrong to think any decision taken or appointment made on Coates’s part since was anything less than strategic.
Even before his appointment as an IOC member in 2001, he had become one of the Olympic movement’s most-listened-to voices as both AOC president and a rising power inside ICAS, where he had been a founding member since it was established in 1994.
In 2009, Coates became a member of the IOC’s executive board. A year later, he was named ICAS president.
He became an IOC vice-president for the first time in 2013 and was appointed chair of the coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
In 2014, he was appointed chair of the IOC’s Legal Affairs Commission and in the following year met with South-East Queensland’s Council of Mayors regarding a future Olympic bid.
In the years since, Coates chaired the Working Group for Future Games Elections, which decided on the new model of selection.
Cities interested in hosting the Games enter into a “dialogue” with the IOC, followed by a recommendation to move one bid city forward for “targeted dialogue” before “final negotiations” and a rubber-stamping “election” — where the only remaining city is put to a vote of IOC members to show their support.
This week, Brisbane’s rivals were surprised when the IOC announced its Future Host Commission recommended only Brisbane be invited to the next phase.
Bids from Qatar, Germany, Hungary and Indonesia were nowhere near the level of development that had gone into Brisbane’s bid and they are now left to consider whether they will remain in contention for the 2036 Olympics.
“There should be acknowledgement that … the AOC and the Brisbane City Council and the Council of Mayors started looking at this in 2015,” Coates said.
Change of plans
When IOC president Thomas Bach visited Australia in 2015, he met with then-prime minister Tony Abbott, South-East Queensland’s Council of Mayors representatives and others to float the idea of a Brisbane Games.
“Ours was originally a bid for 2028,” Coates said.
“When Los Angeles was given that 11 years out, then we moved our focus to 2032.
“At the same time, the IOC changed its rules to say you don’t have to be one city, you can have a region, you can have a couple of cities, so this is a bid that has a footprint over South-East Queensland from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane and down to the Gold Coast.
“The way the new procedure works is that you move from being an interested party … to a targeted dialogue during which period you exclusively deal with the IOC to provide them with the answers to their questionnaires.
“The governments would give the various undertakings and guarantees, things that the Commonwealth government does regularly for big international events.
“If you comply with all of that, and if that’s all sweet, then the IOC looks at that and at that point they will or will not make a recommendation to the full IOC session for a vote.
“The IOC session could be as early as Tokyo [in June].”
The question was asked why Brisbane cannot just be announced the winner now, since it would seem almost impossible to lose a vote in what is essentially a one-horse race.
“In everything the IOC does, you have to get 50 per cent,” Coates explained.
“So, Thomas Bach will stand for re-election in the session in March but there still has to be 50 per cent who support him.”
And no doubt there will be.
In the same way, Brisbane can be confident of getting more than 50 per cent of the vote. Bucking the system is not the done thing at the IOC.
Those in Australia might regard Brisbane’s well-developed bid — perfectly suited to a new selection process — as a masterstroke. Those in other bid nations were caught out.
Questions will no doubt be asked.
“People can’t cry foul about it,” Coates said.
Cost savings a priority
Under the “new norm” Olympic Games Delivery Executive Steering Committee, which Coates has chaired since 2017, the IOC wants bids that can show reduced costs, using already-built facilities, and no white elephants.
“The IOC now doesn’t want to see cities wasting money, they want to see cities using existing venues and if those venues are spread out a bit over a number of cities, and they’re existing and you can make do with supplementing them with temporary [venues] then that’s a better system,” Coates said.
Lessons have also been learned from Tokyo, where savings were found by the IOC’s coordination commission — chaired by Coates — in order to lessen the explosion of the budget following the year-long postponement because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We call it the Tokyo model,” Coates said.
“When we realised that the postponement and COVID were going to cost the Japanese a lot extra, we separately then together sat down and identified something like 273 possible initiatives to reduce the cost of the Games.
“We didn’t implement all of them, we still found I think something like another $280 million [in savings] or something like that.
“I very much look forward to sitting down and having a go at the budget we’ve got at the moment from the bottom up with the IOC’s financial people and the Games department, and I back myself and the IOC to find a lot of savings.”
Those with experience would be foolish not to back him.
Coates sees Brisbane 2032 as part of his legacy for many years of Olympic involvement.
“I am very, very anxious to finish my work up here and deliver these Games,” he said.
It appears he already has.