John Coates, a tactically astute 68-year-old Sydney lawyer, has been President of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) for 29 years. He has been involved in three Australian Summer Olympic bids, from three different cities, and maybe - who knows? - will soon be roped into a fourth.
He has been an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member since 2001 - a vintage that also included Juan Antonio Samaranch, one of the present IOC vice-presidents, Issa Hayatou, long-time ruler of African football, and Hong Kong’s Timothy Fok. Though no longer an IOC vice-president himself, Coates still tends to clock up more microphone time at IOC Sessions than anyone bar the organisation’s President Thomas Bach himself.
SportAccord’s visit to Coates’ home country appeared to us a good time to tap into his four decades-plus of hands-on Olympic experience. He graciously agreed to an extended interview, even though the request came in the middle of two interventions from the surgeon’s knife.
Coates is one of many examples of influential Olympic figures who have entered that world via the sport of rowing. Initially a coxswain, he then took up coaching until his duties as an articled clerk made him too busy to continue.
"I was manager of the Australian rowing team at 25," he tells me. A year later, he attended the 1976 Montreal Games as manager of the rowing section of the Australian Olympic team.
That was an exceptionally poor Olympics for Australian athletes, who took home only five medals, four of them bronzes, the country’s lowest haul since Berlin 1936.
Four years later, Coates and his colleagues found themselves confronted with problems of a different kind as they, in common with sports officials in other Western nations, wrestled with whether to attend the Games in Communist Moscow.
Though not yet on the AOC executive, Coates played a part in Australia’s decision to go, by a narrow margin of six votes to five. Asked why he favoured attending, he replies: "Malcolm Fraser [then Australian Prime Minister] was selling wool to Russia. He wasn’t taking any hit himself. I didn’t see why athletes should take responsibility for a political matter."
In the end, 123 Australian athletes competed at the Moscow Games, winning nine medals, two of them gold.
By late-1985, Coates was AOC vice-president and deeply involved in his first Summer Olympic bid: Brisbane’s attempt to land the 1992 Games, against stiff competition from Barcelona, Paris, Belgrade, Birmingham and Amsterdam.
Not surprisingly in this company, the bid came up short, finishing a fairly distant third. In his book, An Olympic Life, Kevan Gosper, his fellow countryman and former IOC vice-president, describes how hard Coates took defeat, saying he appeared "quite disillusioned". Gosper goes on: "Being chief executive and living in Brisbane he was closely identified with the bid. As chief executive he had to believe he would win, but his face clearly showed he was feeling the loss acutely."
Reminded of this, Coates says: "I believed what people said that we had something of a chance. It was not so much that we didn’t win, but it clearly taught me not to take at face value what IOC members at the time would say to you.
"I was young. I had moved my family up to Brisbane. I had put a lot into it. It did shatter me. I was tempted to go back to law. But I soon got back in the swing of things."
The "swing of things" amounted most notably to a run of appointments as Chef de Mission of the Australian Olympic team that stretched from Seoul 1988 to Beijing 2008, and - from 1990 - the AOC Presidency.
Coates played a more arm’s-length role as consultant to the next Australian bid, this time from Melbourne, for the 1996 Games. In an equally tough but closer race, the 1956 Olympic host city ended up fourth behind Toronto, Athens and Atlanta, the surprise winner.
By the time a third consecutive Australian tilt at the Summer Games was announced in late 1990, the hard-driving, invariably well-prepared Coates was ready to take over as what Gosper described as "the strategic mastermind of the Sydney bid".
The race would pit the Australian challenger against the might of Beijing. But, as Coates remembers, "I thought there were enough friendships made and lessons learnt from the first two bids".
Having authored the Sydney 2000 strategy document, he turned his particular focus to Africa and Eastern Europe, commenting: "That is where we had to pick up the votes."
Over the years, Coates had become friendly with Sam Ramsamy, the South African who had been chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee since the 1970s and took over as President of the country’s National Olympic Committee in 1991, the year after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The Australian recalls how Ramsamy helped him to plot an extensive trip through the continent, including a meeting with Mandela, accompanied by Gough Whitlam, the former Australian Prime Minister, and Whitlam’s wife Margaret.
"I think we probably got five or six votes [in Africa]," Coates tells me, reflecting on the trip’s significance. "I don’t think Melbourne had got any."
Anyone who has been involved in an Olympic bid knows how all-consuming, verging on obsessive, the process can become. So I was not surprised when Coates told me he had been "doing the numbers every day". By the time the 1993 IOC Session in Monte Carlo, at which the decision was to be taken, arrived, Coates says he knew Sydney would win.
The Chinese bid retained many powerful supporters, however, and Coates, perhaps still mindful of his Brisbane disappointment, continued to play his cards close to his chest. He tells me about one encounter with a prominent lawyer and IOC counsel of the Samaranch era called Samuel Pisar. "He said, 'Tell me who you have voting for you,'" Coates remembers. "The best we can get is 13 or 14," he replied, calculating that, on this occasion, discretion was the better part of valour. "We can’t win."
In the event, Sydney did win by 45 votes to 43, in what was in reality a two-horse race, in spite of the presence of three other candidates, Manchester, Berlin and Istanbul. The victory naturally triggered a change of emphasis for Coates from bidding to organising, and he served the next seven years as senior vice-president of the Organising Committee of what has gone down as one of the most successful Summer Games in history.
He tells me how, in the last six months of this intense period, he and Michael Knight, the New South Wales Assembly member who was Minister for the Olympics and Organising Committee chair, "acted as a two-man board".
One of Coates’s most memorable tasks in the countdown to the event he now describes as "my Everest", was to go to Los Angeles to ask the 400m runner Cathy Freeman to light the Olympic Cauldron. As described in Harry Gordon’s book, Inside the Sydney Olympics, Coates first raised the subject with the athlete on May 21, 2000 in a restaurant called Il Piccolino. Though leaving Coates with the firm impression that she would agree, hence ratcheting up the pressure she would inevitably feel as poster girl of the Games yet further, Freeman did not consent definitively until a couple of months later. Gordon records her strikingly unselfish comment on exiting Il Piccolino: "John, I’ll understand if you change your mind."
Did Sydney 2000 benefit Australia? When I ask the question, Coates first recalls a remark made by Paul Keating, Australian Prime Minister at the time of the decisive Session in Monte Carlo. "This," Keating said, "is an opportunity for Australia and Australians to show we can hack it in the big time."
Coates also asserts that the successful staging of the Games "gained us a lot of friends and kudos within the Olympic Movement." In addition, the event "transformed Australian sport in the lead-up to it". The home team amassed 58 Olympic and a table-topping 149 Paralympic medals, including Freeman’s iconic 400 metres Olympic gold.
He acknowledges that "we didn’t quite get the benefit of increased tourism because 9/11 came along". Even so, "a lot of conferences like going to an Olympic city".
Some nine months after Sydney, Coates was back in Moscow where he was to be elected an IOC member. As it happened, his entry into sport’s most prestigious club almost got off slightly on the wrong foot. The evening before the big day, Coates had a few drinks in the bar with Freeman, who was also at the Session. On awaking the next morning, he found he had a number of messages telling him that the induction ceremony had been brought forward. This left him about half-an-hour to get there.
He has since put in as big a shift as any IOC member of his time, including stints as Executive Board member between 2009 and 20012 and vice-president between 2013 and 2017. Also chair of the key Legal Affairs Commission, his time as a full member is scheduled to draw to a close at the end of next year, soon after the Tokyo Games for which he has been a notably hands-on Coordination Commission chairman. Such is the value of Coates’ experience and legal expertise to IOC President Thomas Bach and colleagues in Lausanne, however, that I would be most surprised if he is not granted a four-year extension.
Regarding Tokyo 2020, Coates says he is "absolutely enjoying" his COCOM role and "very pleased" with how it is going. While he says you "could not place a lot of reliance on the bid budget" which "had to be done again", he is on good terms with Tokyo 2020 President Yoshirō Mori and Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo Governor. As Coates puts it: "The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is underwriting the Games; she is entitled to see the money is being properly spent."
Less than a year and a half out, the Australian describes transportation as "probably my biggest worry". He elaborates: "It is a very big city. You have an obligation to get athletes to venues as quickly as possible. They have acknowledged that to do that we need to take about 15 per cent of normal traffic off roads during the Games."
While two national holidays are being moved into the Games period and people are being encouraged to work from home, he warns: "We are not there yet. You have to make sure big deliveries are out of the way by 4am. You have to change the work patterns of folk."
Yet another of Coates’ many key roles is at the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (CAS_, governing body of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, of which he is President. "For any lawyer it is a unique opportunity," he says. "I find it a really wonderful challenge."
Along with the bedding-in of CAS’ newly-created Anti-Doping Division, current preoccupations include completion of the new CAS headquarters at the Palais de Beaulieu. This is costed at some CHF37.5 million for purchase and construction, to be funded partly from loans and partly a CAS reserve for future building works.
While elections at ICAS are due in May, Coates tells me he is the only nominee for President.
He faced a tough battle before being re-elected to the AOC Presidency in 2017, holding off the challenge of Danielle Roche by 58 votes to 35, the first time he had been opposed.
He tells me he has "made it quite clear that this is my last term".
"I will finish at the annual meeting in 2021," he says. "I am happy with that."
We touch briefly on Australia’s recent Summer Games performance, which has been in gradual decline since the highpoint of Sydney 2000. This part of the discussion lasts long enough for Coates to make plain that he sees the main factor as lack of money, with Australia being outspent by its main medals table rivals.
We also attempt to gaze into the future, with Coates offering one firm prediction: namely that "International Federations in professional and semi-professional sports are going to have to adapt to greater demands from the athletes".
It seems most appropriate to end, though, with Brisbane 2032 - what does Coates think of the prospects of another Australian Summer Games bid, one that would, moreover, assuming he gets involved, take him back full circle to that ultimately disappointing 1992 bid?
I would categorise his response as far from gung-ho, even though a Brisbane bid would probably stand a much better chance than last time.
"South-east Queensland is the fastest-growing area in Australia," Coates says. "The trouble is it has outgrown its infrastructure. The M1 from Brisbane to Gold Coast can be like a parking lot."
He feels that "a large amount of money" has to be spent to remedy this. Meanwhile, "the AOC has made it clear that the Games are only feasible if transport infrastructure is improved".
He reiterates: "It is very, very feasible, but only if they fix that infrastructure". The AOC "will not push unless convinced that infrastructural shortcomings are being addressed".
He does not think it necessary to take a decision until two or three months before Tokyo 2020.