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

And between the two sparring factions, things are getting ugly.

05/05/2017 2:11 PM AEST | Updated 05/05/2017 2:35 PM AEST
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Danni Roche must have the most tired fingers in Australia right about now. 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?

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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.

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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 organisation".

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.

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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 bodies.

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 seen.

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