The Relationship between the Australian Olympic Committee and the Australian Sports Commission

By Greg Blood. Orginally published in Sporting Traditions, V35 (1) May 2018

Since the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and Australian Sports Commission (ASC) have had several very public disagreements regarding the funding and direction of high performance sport. In 1980, the Fraser Government requested the then Australian Olympic Federation to boycott the Moscow Olympics. This led to the AOC not accepting any direct funding from the Australian Government for the preparation of Summer and Winter Olympics teams since 1992. However, the AOC particularly through its President John Coates used its influence to ensure that the Australian Government adequately funded Olympic sports through the ASC’s expenditure distributions to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and national sports organisations. Tensions will continue to arise due to the different aims of both organisations. The AOC is primarily focused on Olympic sport representation and achievements; the ASC on highperformance sport including the Olympics, organisational governance and sport participation. keywords: Australian Olympic Committee, Australian Sports Commission, Australian Government, sports funding, Olympics. 1


The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and the Australian Government and its primarily sport agency the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) have had a fractious relationship at times since the 1980s. The 2017 AOC Presidency challenge raised the issue of the ASC allegedly trying to influence AOC funding directions and organisational management. Their conflict can be seen due to the different mandates of both organisations, Australian Government financial priorities and the leadership personalities in both organisations.

This paper examines the relationship over five periods. During the first period, from 1896 to 1980, Australian Government funding to the then Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) and Olympic sports organisations was limited. The second period includes the Australian Government’s request to the AOF to boycott 1980 Moscow Olympics due the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. In the third period, between 1980 and 1990, major organisational changes in Australian sport altered the dynamics of their relationship. These changes included the Australian Government establishing two organisations — the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the ASC, and the AOF changing its governance and its name to the Australian Olympic Committee. During this period, the Australian Government’s financial support to Olympics sports increased markedly, but was confined to selected national sports organisations. In the fourth period Australian Government financial support to Olympic sports organisations increased in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. AOC negotiations with the New South Wales Government resulted in it obtaining substantial legacy funding and therefore no longer requiring Australian Government assistance to send Australian teams to Summer and Winter Olympics. The final period, following Sydney 2000, was marked by tension between highperformance and sports participation funding distribution by the Australian Government.

Funding 1896–1980

Australia was represented at the first Summer Olympics held in Athens in 1896 by Edwin Flack, who won gold medals in the men’s 800m and 1500m. 2 Flack required no funding as he was working in London at the time of the Games with Price Waterhouse & Co. 3 Australian teams at the 1908 London Olympics and the 1912 Stockholm Games competed as part of the Australasian (Australia and New Zealand) team. Until then, allAustralians, like Flack, made their own arrangements to compete at the Olympic Games. Funding requests for the Australian Government to assist in sending teams to London 1908 and Stockholm 1912 were rejected. 4 In 1914, Prime Minister Joseph Cook agreed to provide a subsidy of £1000 to the Australasian Olympic Games funds for participation in the 1916 Berlin Olympics, but these Games were subsequently cancelled due to World War I. 5 The AOF was established in 1920, and the Australian Government agreed to fund the Australian team to the 1920 Antwerp Olympics with £1000 for travel and accommodation as part of its 1914 promise. 6 This was the first time a team named Australia competed at the Olympics Games. 

In 1927, The Referee newspaper argued the ‘nationalistic’ case for Australian and State Government funding the Australian Olympic team:

Australia did tolerably well in the despatch of her teams to Olympic Games of the past. But this country is emerging from her International swaddling clothes. She is taking her place among the nations of the earth, developing faster perhaps in the economic sense that any other nation. The time is therefore ripe for Australia to tackle the Olympic Games problem in true earnestness so that the country shall be represented by a team of sufficient numerical strength and class to enhance its prestige and advertise to the world a country that breeds red-blooded men and women.7

Due to financial pressures caused by the Great Depression, the Australian Government did not provide a grant for the Australian team to attend the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1947, the Chifley Government offered £3,000 in funding for the 1948 London Olympics team. The AOF estimated it required £25,000 to send the team to the Games due to utilising air transport for the first time. Prime Minister Ben Chifley is reported as stating the team should be restricted to 20 athletes who were medal chances and that ‘no picnickers or hangers-on should be sent’.8 But the AOF delegation felt that Chifley had apathy towards the Olympics and argued that governments of Italy had granted £130,000, Canada £30,000, and Sweden £24,000 to their teams.9 In the event, the AOF was able to raise £23,918 for an initial 1948 team of 34 athletes and 7 officials, and it eventually sent 77 athletes due to several individual athletes each raising £550.10

In October 1951, Chairman of the AOF, Harold Alderson, stated that it was obvious that the Menzies Government was not going to help amateur sport prepare for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.11 However, in November 1951 the Menzies Government came to the party, announcing a grant of £8000.12 The Australian Government’s reticence to fund Olympic teams immediately after World War II may have been a result of post-war rebuilding, and a search for ‘good’ performances, not simply representation. The issue would be reignited in subsequent funding disputes.

10, 11, 12, Notes:

a. £88,000 was provided by the Melbourne Organising Committee for Australian teams, officials and sports associations.13

b. $300,000 for pre-Games preparation and $524,738 for athletes and teams that did not attend the 1980 Olympics due Australian Government request to boycott the Games.14 Sources: House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, The Way e P(lay): Commonwealth Assistance, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1983, p. 57. accessed 3 May 2018; Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games, pp. 121, 148, 179, 350, 371, 394.

Table 1 summarises funding provided by the Australian Government for Olympic teams from 1920 to 1992. Funding was provided for each Games except 1932. Richard Cashman and Rhonda Jolly note that Australian Government funding was conditional on the AOF raising the majority of funds to send the team.15 The AOF obtained additional funding from State Governments, fundraising activities and athlete fundraising.

While the Australian Government assisted in sending Australian teams to the Olympics from 1920 to 1980, it provided no assistance in the preparation of Australian athletes except in the lead-up to Moscow 1980. Australia’s Olympic performances improved dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, with the Melbourne 1956 Olympics being a high-water mark, with a third placing on the medal table (35 medals, including 13 gold). This was primarily due to Europe’s focus on post-World War II reconstruction, Australia hosting the Games, and the outstanding performances of the swimmers (eight gold) and track athletes (four gold). However, Olympic sport changed in the 1970s with the improvement of Eastern Bloc countries, particularly East Germany. Evidence now shows that Eastern Bloc performances were boosted by government-sponsored doping programs.

In 1972, the newly-elected Whitlam Government took a greater interest in sport and during its three years in office produced two major reports: John Bloomfield’s 1973 report recommended the establishment of an institute of sport and in 1975 an Australian Sports Institute Study Group Report, chaired by Allan Coles, outlined the functions of a national instituteof sport.16 After the Fraser Government came into office in 1975 it did not immediately act on these reports. However, Australia’s increasing lack of competitiveness was brought home dramatically by a poor performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, in which no gold medals were won (and only five medals in total). Montreal was the first Games since Berlin 1936 that the Australian team failed to win a gold medal. Prime Minister Fraser was reportedly booed by Australian athletes in the Olympic Village due to inadequate Australian Government support.17 Secretary General of the AOF, Julius ‘Judy’ Patching wrote in his 1976 Games Report:

The AOF would be less than frank it if didn’t register concern for more positive demonstration from the Australian Government for amateur sports represented within the AOF.18 

The Australian team’s poor performance at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton provided further evidence of a decline in international performances.

Prime Minister Fraser delegated responsibility for improving Australia’s competitiveness in international sport, particularly the Summer Olympics, to Home Affairs Minister Bob Ellicott. Ellicott acted on the Bloomfield and Coles reports, announcing the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra on 25 January 1980; Prime Minister Fraser officially opened the organisation on 26 January 1981. In the 1980 AOF Annual Report, Patching stated that:

Sport in Australia, is responding to the closer liaison and better funding which typified Federal Government action since the advent of a department to cover sport and physical recreation.19

It should also be noted that the Confederation of Australian Sport, under the leadership of Wayne Reid, lobbied the Australian Government for additional financial resources. The lack of support for individual athletes and teams preparing for the Olympics over the years was highlighted by the decline in performances and medals won.

Moscow Boycott

In 1980, at a time when it was devoting more financial resources to the preparation of athletes with establishment of the AIS, the Australian Government became involved in the proposed boycott of Moscow 1980 due to Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The Fraser Government supported the boycott, led by US President Jimmy Carter, and requested the AOF to withdraw the Australian team. This request led to heated public debate and was not supported by the Labor Opposition led by Bill Hayden. A great deal of pressure was placed on the eleven members of the AOF Board, which in May 1980 voted six to five to attend the Games. Lisa Forrest’s book Boycott provides a detailed account of the machinations including the pressure brought to bear by the Fraser Government in the period leading up to the AOF vote.20

The Fraser Government originally agreed to provide $700,000 in funding — $200,000 for pre-games competitions and $500,000 for sending the team.21 The AOF’s report on Moscow 1980 stated that $300,000 was provided by the Australian Government for pre-games competitions.22 However, the Fraser Government withdrew $500,000 after the AOF decided to send a team. It was later revealed in a 1984 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure Report that $524,738 was subsequently given to sports organisations and athletes that boycotted Moscow 1980, with the premise that the funding was for these teams and athletes to attend alternative international competitions.23

It is worth considering the impact of the Moscow Olympics boycott debate on Kevan Gosper and John Coates, who in the future would become leading AOC and International Olympic Committee (IOC) administrators. At the time of the debate, Coates was a 30-year-old Sydney lawyer and heavily involved in rowing administration, including Rowing Section Manager at Montreal 1976, the Honorary Secretary, Australian Rowing Council, and appointed as the Australian team’s Administration Director for Moscow 1980. While not on the AOF Board, Coates was strongly opposed to the boycott, and a major outcome for him was a strong desire for the AOF to become financially independent of the Australian Government, particularly in terms of funding teams. Coates has been forever grateful for the financial and other assistance provided by the trade union movement, particularly in assisting in raising funds to cope with the $500,000 withdrawal by the Fraser Government.24 Coates is frequently said to have Labor leanings, and this may be traced back to the Australian Labor Party and trade union support and contacts he developed during the boycott.

Gosper was not in favour of the boycott when it was first mooted, but would become one of the five who voted for it at the AOF Board meeting. While the boycott was being debated around the world, Ellicott asked Gosper after the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics (held in February) to become the inaugural chairman of the Australian Institute of Sport.25  Ellicott argued that in Gosper:

We have chosen you because we need a businessman to run it, you’re chief of Shell, we understand you are coming back at the end of the year and you’ve got an Olympic record and in our judgement, you are the best person to do it.26

Forrest suggests that this appointment could cynically be seen as an attempt by Ellicott to buy Gosper’s vote on the boycott, but Gosper countered this by saying: ‘While I turn it over in my mind now, it never occurred to me that it was coming as encouragement to change my mind’.27

The Moscow Olympics boycott has had a profound impact on the AOF’s relationship with the Australian Government and Coates particularly in terms of funding and independence.

Organisational Change in Australian Sport 1980–1990

During the 1980s, the organisation of sport in Australia underwent major changes and this further impacted the relationship between the Australian Government and the AOC. The Fraser Government established the AIS as an incorporated company in 1981 (later established as statutory authority by Australian Institute of Sport Act 1986) and the Hawke Government followed this by formally establishing the ASC in 1985. In 1987, the Hawke Government decided that the AIS should be merged with the ASC for efficiency and coordination reasons. In the Australian Sports Commission Act 1985 Second Reading Debates, Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, John Brown declared the ASC’s charter, ‘clear and simple’, was ‘to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used wisely to achieve the most effective outcomes for sport and the community’.28 This objective linked to previous Australian Governments’ limited funding decisions into sport, particularly Olympic teams, in terms of efficient and effective use of taxpayers’ money.

As a backdrop to these Australian Government organisational decisions, it should be noted that both Gosper and Coates played significant roles in the development of the AIS and ASC. Gosper was inaugural Chairman of the AIS, and held the position until 1985, when he became AOF President. Coates was appointed an AIS Board member in 1985, and was its Deputy Chairman from 1986 until its merger with the ASC. Coates was then appointed a member of the new ASC Board and was its Deputy Chairman from 1989 until resigning in 1998, claiming that the Australian Government had made only weak efforts to combat doping.29

Both Gosper and Coates had significant influence on the Australian Government’s development of sport from an Olympic perspective in the 1980s and 1990s. Coates in particular was able to influence the Australian Government’s policy and funding of sport. In an interview with AOC Historian, Harry Gordon, in 1993, Coates noted that he was encouraged to support the merger of the AIS and ASC on grounds of efficiency. But on reflection, Coates believed the merger was an error, as ‘the ASC has such a wide brief, covering so many areas like children and disabled sport, that its structure makes it unable to focus on the elite side of high performance sport’.30

Besides the major organisational changes at the Australian Government level, in 1990 a change of governance of the AOF led to the formation of the AOC. This change brought Australia in line with other national Olympic countries, and created a structure in line with the Olympic Charter where national sporting organisations had more direct input. More importantly, Coates became the inaugural President of the AOC, replacing Gosper, and his stated aim was for the new body to become more independent of government, particularly in terms of financial assistance. 

AOC and ASC Objectives

It is worth considering the objectives of the ASC and the AOC in light of their conflicts since the 1990’s. Both have objectives related to high performance (includes Olympic medal success) and sports participation. The Australian Sports Commission Act 1989 has three major objectives: (a) to provide leadership in the development of sport in Australia;   (b) to encourage increased participation and improved performance by Australians in sport;   (c) to provide resources, services and facilities to enable Australians to pursue and achieve excellence in sport while also furthering their educational and vocational skills and other aspects of their personal development.

In addition, there is recognition of the AOC in the Act under Function 7: (q) to provide advice on matters related to sport to the Australian Olympic Federation or other persons, bodies or associations.

These objectives are often referred to as ‘excellence in international sporting competitions and increased sports participation’. However, Bob Stewart and Rhonda’s Jolly’s research highlights the directing of ASC’s resources to high-performance sport, particularly Olympic and Paralympic sports.31  

The AOC’s Constitution of 1990 highlights its many objectives. Relevant sections include:

6.1 to develop, promote and protect the Olympic Movement in Australia in accordance with the Olympic Charter and all regulations and directives issued by the IOC; 6.6 to encourage the development of high performance sport as well as sport for all; 6.12 in order to fulfil these objects, the Committee may cooperate with governmental bodies. The Committee shall not associate itself with any activity which would be in contradiction with the Olympic Charter. The Committee may also cooperate with nongovernmental bodies;

6.13 to preserve its autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent the Committee from complying with the Olympic Charter;

The mission statement of the AOC goes further:

The Australian Olympic Team is the embodiment of our nations hopes, dreams and desires and their performances are the pinnacle of the benefits of sporting participation. The Australian Olympic movement promotes, raises awareness of and encourages participation in sport for benefits of health, longevity, fitness, skill, achievement, social interaction, wellbeing and other benefits of exercise for all individuals in Australia.32

There is the assumption in the mission statements that Australia’s Olympic participation and success will lead to increased sports participation throughout the nation. But evidence since Sydney 2000 suggests that the Olympics have very limited impact on sports participation.33  

Both the ASC and AOC mandates cover high-performance sport and increased participation, but since the 1990s high-performance sport receives 60-70 per cent of ASC funding. The AOC primarily funds high-performance sport through supporting teams to major Olympic competitions — Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics and Youth Olympics, with small grants to national sports organisations and medal incentives. In recent times, the AOC’s major ‘sport for all’ (sports participation) activities are through its sport education programs but very limited funds are provided in support. Both organisations support ‘sport for all’ at a considerably lower level than high-performance sport. Finally, the AOC Constitution highlights independence from political pressures, but it does allow cooperation with the Australian Government. Legislation allows the ASC to provide ‘advice’ to the AOC.

1990s Funding Boom and the Sydney Olympics

Since its formation in 1990, the AOC, particularly through Coates, has strongly lobbied for more funding to Olympic sports preparation by the Australian Government and its agencies such as the ASC. Coalition and Labor Governments have eventually bowed to this pressure.  The Hawke (1983–91) and Keating (1991–96) Labor Governments made several major sport policy announcements. In August 1989, Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories, Graham Richardson, launched The Next Step initiative, which provided $230 million for sport over four years.34 In implementing this initiative, the ASC allocated an additional $10 million to seven sports — basketball, canoeing, cycling, hockey, rowing, swimming, and track and field, with the aim of boosting Australia’s medal opportunities at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.35 While the AOC was very satisfied with this increased funding, Coates in the 1990 AOC Annual Report disagreed with the ASC’s intention to be more selective in the Olympic sports that it funded:

We reject this suggestion on the basis that without the prospect of Olympic representation many of our developing sports would fall by the way in attracting participants and financial support and that remains our philosophy.36

This was the start of the battle of between the AOC and ASC on how high performance funding was distributed between Olympic and other national sports including cricket, Australian football, netball, and rugby codes.

In September 1992, the Keating Government followed the The Next Step with the Maintain the Momentum Sports Policy 1992-96 launched by Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, Ros Kelly, that provided $293 million over four years.37 Both Next Step and Maintain the Momentum allocated additional resources to high-performance sport, particularly Olympic sports. There was recognition that increased Australian Government funding resulted in improved Olympic results, as can be seen in Table 2.

The most significant impetus to Australian Olympic sport came on 23 September 1993 when Sydney defeated Beijing 45 to 43 to win the right to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. This article will not address the many issues related to Australian Government support of the bid other than to state the Keating Government did strongly support it, particularly in relation to facility funding.38 After winning, the AOC released its Gold Medal Plan in October 1993, with Coates arguing that the success of Sydney 2000 would be seen in terms of its well managed hosting but also the number of medals, particularly gold, garnered by the Australian team.39 Coates had seen how Montreal 1976 had been perceived poorly by Canadians due to the failure of the host nation to win a gold medal. The Gold Medal Plan’s aim was for Australia to be ranked in the top five of nations in terms of total medals and gold medals and to send a team of 651 athletes. The plan was costed at $437 million over seven years, including participation at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. 

Minister for Sport, Ros Kelly was cautious about the Gold Medal Plan’s objectives regarding gold medals won and placing high on the medal table. Several sports had unrealistic funding figures in their bids for funding: for example, synchronised swimming requested $4.7 million, including $1.7 million for equipment. Kelly responded to the Plan by stating that:

Governments don’t win gold medals, the athletes will have to do that. But I do have a responsibility to ensure taxpayer’s money is spent properly.40

Long serving ASC Chairman, Ted Harris (1984–94) supported Kelly:  

Unfortunately, everybody was invited to put in a request for what they wanted and naturally they asked for the maximum. But sports have to understand there are other demands on taxpayer dollars and on the private sector funds. 41

The AOC wanted the distribution of Gold Medal Plan funds through an off-the-shelf company but this was rejected by the Keating Government. The dispute highlighted the Australian Government objective, through the ASC, of ‘value for money’ in the allocation of funding for Olympic sports organisations.

In November 1994, the Keating Government responded to the Gold Medal Plan by announcing its Olympic Athlete Program (OAP), which provided an additional $135 million (which ended up at $140 million) over six years to prepare Australian athletes for Sydney 2000.42 The AOC committed a further $52 million for athlete preparation.43 In the 2017 AOC Presidency challenge, Coates noted his successful lobbying role in the establishment of the OAP and its funding.44

The ASC was tasked with managing the OAP funds and an advisory committee including the AOC, Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) and state institutes and academies of sport was established. ASC Chief Executive Officer, Jim Ferguson, noted that there was a difference of opinion in weighing the distribution of OAP funds. The ASC only wanted to fund sports that were likely to be successful, while the AOC argued all sports should be funded so that they could perform creditability at home Olympics. The AOC prevailed and all Olympic summer sports received funding.45 Three OAP funding categories were developed (see Table 3). Several sports moved between categories during the six-year funding period because of their performances.

In May 1994, Coates stated at a Parliament House function that the AOC would no longer require Australian Government funding to prepare Australian teams for Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.46 AOC fundraising and marketing activities would raise $72 million — $20 million for Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 teams and $52 million for international competitions over six years. This would be the first Games for which the AOC would not request Australian Government funding for the Australian Teams.

Three developments ultimately assisted in the AOC in becoming financially secure and therefore no longer requiring Australian Government funding for Summer and Winter Olympic teams. Firstly, the Australian Parliament passed the Olympic Insignia Protection Amendments Act 1994 and this provided the AOC extended legislative protection to the Olympic Insignia Protection Act 1987 by the addition of further Olympic words and symbols. Through this updated legislation, the AOC improved its ability to control Olympic marketing in Australia and subsequently increase revenue from licensing. Secondly, the AOC in 1996 received $60 million from the New South Wales Government due to the successful 2000 Olympics bid.47 These funds were for team preparation for the years 1997-2000. Thirdly, as a condition of the AOC surrendering its control of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) budget and any Games profits, it would receive $100 million at the conclusion of Sydney 2000. The chapter titled ‘The Knight of the Long Prawns’ in Gordon’s book, The Time of Our Lives: Inside the Sydney Olympics, details the discussions between the AOC and New South Wales State Government in determining the $100 million payment which would be injected into the AOC’s Australian Olympic Foundation.48

During the ten years in the lead up to Sydney 2000, the Australian Government and the AOC had a good ‘public’ relationship. This was most likely due to the united goal of a successful Olympics in terms of hosting and Australian team success. However, tension existed from time to time as to how the Olympic funding pie was to be distributed among Olympic sports and anti-doping policies.

Post-Sydney Olympics Funding

In 1999, Coates was concerned about future Australian Government funding to Olympic sports due to the cessation of the OAP program at the end of Sydney 2000. There was the suggestion that funding may be reallocated to sports participation programs. Coates stated:

The AOC has no quarrel with funds being made available for greater participation but does not think this should be at the expense of sport at the national and international level.49

The Howard Government (1996–2007) responded with its first major sports policy announcement in 2001 with its Backing Australia’s Sporting Ability.50 This policy included an additional $122 million to Australian high performance athletes out of $162 million to sport over four years. With this announcement, the four-year funding for sport by the Howard Government was now at $547 million.

In 2004, the AOC was again demanding more high performance funding by requesting that the Howard Government match its $17.8 million in funding for 2008 Olympics preparations. The additional funding was to be allocated to direct athlete support.51 The lobbying was successful, with the Government providing an additional $52 million in the May 2005 budget. The additional funding provided for the establishment of a European AIS training facility ($11 million), direct athlete assistance ($14 million), and increased international competitions access for athletes ($13 million).52

In May 2008, Coates began lobbying the newly-elected Rudd Government (2007–10), stating:

I don’t expect there will be more money forthcoming in this week’s budget but there’s got to be more money some time in 2009 if we’re going to get good results in 2012. If not, we won’t be in the top five.

I cannot overemphasise that if additional substantive direct elite athlete financial assistance is not quickly forthcoming the whole of the sporting pyramid will be adversely affected, including participation level.53

August 2008 was a hectic month for national sport reviews and plans. On 3 August, the AOC and the APC announced they would develop a high performance plan for Olympic and Paralympic sports in Australia.54 The Rudd Government followed this announcement on 28 August with the appointment of an Independent Sport Panel to be chaired by the highly respected businessman and sports consultant David Crawford. The panel had a broad mandate to investigate reforms required to ensure that the Australian sport system met future challenges.

In September, after Beijing 2008, Coates again argued the case for increased funding, using the mantra of ‘taking back the Ashes in London’ or finishing higher than Great Britain on the medal table at the 2012 London Olympics.55 Great Britain’s substantial investment in Olympic sport, due tolottery funding, had led to it finishing fourth on the Beijing 2008 Olympic medal table. Australia slipped to sixth.

During this request for additional funding, long- standing ASC Chairman (from 1997 to 2008) Peter Bartels advocated more investment in non-Olympic sports, such as Australian football, rugby league, cricket and netball:

I think it’s time to reflect that the Australian sports funding and training system has a much wider role than to simply focus on two weeks of Olympic sport once every four years, because our larger participation numbers are in non-Olympic sports and participation in them is an important component of the ASC’s mission,  ‘To enrich the lives of Australians through Sport’.

Regardless of the Olympics, the Government must now decide to substantially increase funding or target funding to performance outcomes accordingly and it’s time to consider our sports system.56

The Independent Sport Panel’s report commonly referred as the Crawford Report was released in 2009, and this led to Coates strongly objecting to its recommendation that financial resources to be moved from high performance sport to sports participation.57 Coates led a strong media campaign about the value of the Olympic sport and links that the panel members had to non-Olympic sports particularly Australian football and rugby league. There was prolonged media debate and on 11 May 2010, the Rudd Government released its new sport policy paper Australian Sport: The Pathway to Success, which included its response to the Independent Sport Panel Report.58 The policy provided an additional $195 million over four years, and this led to the Rudd Government investing $1.2 billion in sport over four years.

High performance sport gained the majority of funding with increases for talent identification, athlete financial assistance, additional international competition and new funds in support of national coaches. This funding announcement was the largest Australian Government injection to sport and Coates claimed credit for this through his work with Minister for Sport, Kate Ellis. After its announcement, Coates said: ‘They’ve taken notice of us’ and ‘We are very pleased’.59 In fact, Coates later stated that he agreed to not complain about Australian Government sports funding after this announcement. 60

Prior to the publication of the Crawford Report, Prime Minister Rudd highlighted why the Australian Government supports Olympic sport:

Part of Australia’s global standing lies in the fact that we have such an enormously competitive nation on the international field of sporting endeavour, and the Olympics and in other elite sports as well. 61

In other words, Australia’s importance in the world was expressed through sporting achievements on the international stage.

There was still concern that Australian performances at London 2012 were under threat, even with this additional funding, and on 28 January 2011, Minister for Sport, Mark Arbib, announced that the AIS would take responsibility for high performance sport in Australia and the reallocation of $2.5 million to key Olympic sports.62

In November 2012, with its new high performance responsibility, the AIS announced its Winning Edge 2012–22 strategy, which led to the cessation of AIS sports scholarship programs and assigning national sports organisations responsibility for their high performance and sports participation operations and decisions.63 This strategy was designed to reward national sports organisations with good governance and those with greatest chances of international success, that is, Olympic and Paralympic medals. In the lead-up to and during the 2016 Rio Olympics, the AOC’s view of Winning Edge 2012–22 strategy was highlighted in the public realm. Coates criticised the policy in terms of installing business people as presidents of Olympic national sports organisations, the ASC targeting a fewer number of Olympic sports and the emasculation of the AIS in Canberra.64 In addition, there was a serious disagreement between the AOC and ASC in relation to the allocation of high performance funding — the AOC wanted more sports to be funded.65 The AOC was being lobbied by many of its constituent national sports organisations that had suffered reduced funding under the Winning Edge 2012–22 strategy. Several of the issues related to Winning Edge 2012– 22 were subsequently highlighted during the 2017 AOC Presidency election.

In February 2017, Danni Roche, a hockey gold medallist at Atlanta 1996 Olympics and a businesswoman, challenged Coates for the Presidency of the AOC. At the time, Roche was a member of the ASC Board, and was perceived to be supported and encouraged by ASC Chairman John Wylie.66 It was the first time Coates had been challenged since his election in 1990. Roche’s public election campaign argued that it was time for change due to the longevity of Coates’s presidency, his salary of $715,000 per annum, and that the AOC needed to work more effectively with the ASC.67 Allegations of staff bullying within the AOC were also raised during the challenge.

Coates and his allies, including former Labor Sport Minister Graham Richardson, argued that Roche’s challenge was led by Wylie, who was endeavouring to have more influence on the AOC decision’s in terms of funding and the selection of Olympic team officials.68 Coates argued that this challenge was an assault on the independence of the AOC and referred to the Australian Sports Commission ACT 1989 Second Reading Debates where Minister Brown stated:

The Commission has no power or charter, to intervene in or direct without the direction of the Minister, the affairs of any individual organisation. … The Government has no intention of allowing any compromise of the proud tradition of independence and autonomy of sporting organisations that lies at the heart of Australia’s sporting achievements.69

The climax of the acrimonious Presidency challenge, with intense media interest, resulted with Coates prevailing 58 votes to 35, with many of the smaller and winter Olympic sports thought to have supported him. However, in many ways it was a pyrrhic victory, as Coates agreed to receive a reduced salary as a result of handing over some executive functions to the AOC’s Chief Executive Officer, and to relinquish the role after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.70

During the challenge, Coates highlighted his role as a successful lobbyist:

I have clearly contributed most of any person outside of Government to the current level of appropriations to high performance sport (I think I can claim credit for more than 50%) and as noted, all of these additional appropriations for which I advocated and totalling $55m were for NF’s and Paralympic sports. 71

It was suggested during the Presidency challenge that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was supporting Roche.72 In addition, the Turnbull Government reappointed Wylie as ASC Chairman ahead of time in the lead up to the election and this was seen as support for the ASC’s Winning Edge 2012–22 strategy.73

The period post-Sydney 2000 highlighted Coates’s successful efforts in obtaining additional Australian Government support for Olympics sports, but Coates argued that the level of funding would be insufficient to retain top-five medal tally finishes at future Summer Olympics.74 Coates stressed that the targeted medal approach by the ASC’s Winning Edge strategy denies smaller Olympic sports organisations to develop to the stage of being successful at the Olympics. Since 2011, the ASC has seen a decrease in its budget due to Australian Government Budget efficiency dividends. Due to this decreased funding, the ASC has looked at how its distributes its funding and this led to the cessation of AIS sports scholarship programs and a more targeted approach to high performance funding particularly focussing funding Olympic sports organisations with greatest likelihood of Olympic success.


This article has documented historical instances of the fractious relationship between the AOC and the Australian Government and its primary sport agency the ASC, particularly since the 1980s. This relationship has primarily been about the objectives and distribution of Australian Government sport funding. Both organisations have different masters — the ASC and its government-appointed Board carries out the objectives of the Australian Government, whereas the AOC and its Board, elected by Australian Olympic national sports organisations carries out the objectives of its members, which are sometimes more narrower than the Australian Government. The relationship between John Coates and ASC Chairmen has on several occasions been tense and this has spilled over to the media. These tensions can in part be due to dominant personalities, but are mainly due to the different objectives and philosophies of the AOC and the ASC.

The AOC has been able to achieve total financial independence from the Australian Government in selecting and funding teams to Summer, Winter and Youth Olympics since 1994, and has strongly influenced the Australian Government’s funding to Olympic sports organisations in their preparation for major competitions including the Olympics since the mid-1990s. The AOC has moved from being a recipient of direct Australian Government funding to a strong lobbyist for Olympic sports organisations particularly through the efforts of Coates.

The AOC’s mandate is to support all Olympic sports organisations. In many ways this adheres to the philosophy of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement:

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these precepts is to build up a stronger and more valiant and above all a more scrupulous and more generous humanity.75

This philosophy is at odds with the ASC’s more selective approach to funding Olympic sports organisations. Since 1990, the ASC has primarily funded those Olympic sports with the greatest ability to win medals or be internationally competitive. This ‘backing winners’ philosophy is due to ensuring that limited funds are used to give Australia the best possible chance of finishing in the top five of the medal table at the Summer Olympics since 2000. The loser has been smaller Olympic sports organisations that are not competitive on the world stage. The AOC has argued that these sports cannot become competitive due to lack of governments funds.

Interestingly, competitors from some of the smaller sports such as archery, judo and taekwondo won medals at Sydney 2000 due to them receiving an adequate level of funding due to the OAP Program.76 In addition, the AOC argued that the Olympics inspires the population and leads to greater sports participation. This argument has been debunked by research since Sydney 2000 that highlighted limited ‘trickle down’ impact.77

Australian Government funding to sport through the ASC has increased since Moscow 1980. However, since the late 1990s several Olympic nations such as Great Britain, China, New Zealand and Canada have invested more financial resources in Olympic sport. Australia was last a top-five nation at Athens 2004.

The AOC through Coates has continued to argue for increased highperformance funding to regain a top-five Olympic nation status but the ASC has been under pressure to provide more of its static or slightly decreasing budget to fund sports participation activities due to the developing obesity epidemic. The question now being raised is whether Australia should still aspire to be a top-five Olympic nation while the Australian Government is facing budgetary difficulties. The proposed sports lottery may provide additional funding, but there is still likely to be the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in Olympic sports, due to the Australian Government’s philosophy of ‘value for money’ or, as Prime Minister Chifley stated in 1947, ‘no picnickers and hangers-on should be sent’ to the Olympics.78

Postscript – May 2018

Since this paper was delivered at the 2017 Sporting Traditions Conference in July, there have been significant changes in direction by the ASC and the AOC. In December 2017, the ASC abandoned its Winning Edge 2012–22 strategy that limited sports funding to ability of sports to win Olympic and Paralympics medals and indicated the proposed National Sports Plan to be released in the later part of 2018 would have an increased emphasis on sports participation.79 In the AOC’s 2017 Annual Report released in April 2018 Coates stated:

We need to be about more than winning medals. We can make a greater contribution than that. The health and wellbeing of Australians is an objective that we are uniquely placed to fulfil. 80

I look forward with interest in how both the ASC and AOC implement their new policy directions and how they interact with each other.

References / Notes

1 The author is grateful for the assistance of Dr Bruce Coe, and for feedback from Greg Hartung and Jim Ferguson.

2 Flack also received a bronze medal in the tennis doubles.

3 Ron Clarke, ‘Flack, Edwin Harold (1873–1935) ’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, au/biography/flack-edwin-harold-6186/text10631, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed on 2 May 2018.

4 Richard Cashman, Paradise of Sport: The Rise of Organised Sport in Australia , Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p. 118.

5 Harry Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1994, p. 93.

6 Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , p.96.

7 Australia at the Olympic Games, Referee 16 March 1937, p. 1 news-article127906022, accessed 30 April 2018.

8 Olympic fund £25,000: P M criticised , Argus , 12 July 1947 p. 46, accessed 30 April 2018.

9 ‘Govt. Grant to Games. £3.000’, News (Adelaide), 18 November 1947, p. 5,, accessed 10 April 2018.

10 Cashman, Paradise of Sport, p. 119.

11 ‘Govt. Blows at Sport Criticised’, Sydney Morning Herald , 17 October 1951, p. 10,, accessed 10 April 2018.  

12 Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , p. 179.

13 The Official Report of the Organizing Committee for the Games of XVI Olympiad Melbourne 1956 , Government Printer, Melbourne 1958, p. 35. http://library.la84. org/6oic/OfficialReports/1956/OR1956.pdf, accessed 30 April 2018.

14  House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, The Way We P(lay) , p. 57

15 Cashman, Paradise of Sport, p. 118; Rhonda Jolly, ‘ Sports Funding: Federal Balancing Act’ , Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2013, About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/ BN/2012-2013/SportFunding, accessed 10 April 2018.

16 John Bloomfield, The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia , Department of Tourism and Recreation, Department of Tourism and Recreation, Canberra, 1973 (Bloomfield Report);  Report of the Australian Sports Institute Study Group , Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1975 (Coles Report).

17 Roy Masters, Higher, Richer, Sleazier: How Drugs and Money are Changing Sport Forever , Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2010, p. 203.

18 Australian Olympic Federation, Report of the Olympic Games 1976: XXIst Olympiad, Montreal, July 17, 1976, XIIth Winter Olympics, Innsbruck, February 2, 1976 , Image Australia, Melbourne, 1976.

19 Australian Olympic Federation, Annual report 1980 , Australian Olympic Federation, Melbourne, 1980.

20 Lisa Forrest, Boycott , ABC Books, Sydney, 2008. See also Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , pp. 323–30.

21 Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , p. 324. Although Gordon reports that $700,000 was originally granted, several Australian Governments reports state the total amount was $800,000.

22 Australian Olympic Federation, Report of the Olympic Games 1980 , Woomera Public Relations, Melbourne, 1980, p. 8.

23 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, Payments to athletes and teams who did not participate at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games , Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1984, au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees? url=reports/1984/1984_pp117.pdf, accessed on 12 April 2018.

24 Lee Rhiannon, ‘How Unions Won Us the Olympics’, New Matilda , 5 February 2014, accessed on 12 April 2018.

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26 Forrest, Boycott , p. 73.

27 Forrest, Boycott , p. 74.

28 Australian Sports Commission: Legislation and Parliamentary Debates , Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 1985. 

29 ‘Drugs in Sport: China Cleans Up Image with Sweep of Doping Athletes, Independent , 6 April 1998,, accessed on 12 April 2018.

30 Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games , p. 370.

31 Bob Stewart, Australian Sport — Better by Design: The Evolution of Australian Sport Policy , Routledge, London, 2004; Jolly, ‘ Sports Funding’ .

32 Australian Olympic Committee Objectives,, accessed on 12 April 2018. 

33 A. J. Veal, Kristine Toohey and Stephen Frawley, ‘The Sport Participation Legacy of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Other International Sporting Events Hosted in Australia’, Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events , vol. 4, 2012, pp. 155–84.

34 Australian Sports Kit , Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 1989. 

35 Australian Sports Commission, Annual Report 1989–90 , Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1991.

36 Australian Olympic Committee, Annual Report 1990 , Australian Olympic Committee, Sydney, 1990, 

37 Ros Kelly, Maintain the Momentum: Australian Government Sports Policy 1992 to 1996 , Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 1992.

38 Jolly, ‘ Sports Funding ’.

39 Australian Olympic Committee, Sydney 2000 Gold Medal Plan , Australian Olympic Committee, Sydney, 1993.

40 Jacquelin Magnay, ‘Sports Told to Calm Cash Calls’, Sydney Morning Herald ,  22 October 1993, p. 2. 

41 Jacquelin Magnay, ‘Kelly Settles Power Battle Over Olympics’, Sydney Morning Herald , 13 December 1993, p. 31.

42 Olympic Athlete Program: Making Great Australians: Australian Government Sports Policy , Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra, 1994. 

43 Jim Ferguson, More than Sunshine & Vegemite: Success the Australian Way , Halstead Press, Sydney, 2007, p. 70.

44 John Bloomfield, Australia’s Sporting Success: The Inside Story , University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2003, p.101.

45 Ferguson, More than Sunshine , pp. 69–72.

46 ‘AOC Meet $72m Games Bill, Says Coates’, Canberra Times , 5 May 1994, p. 28.

47 Harry Gordon, The Time of Our Lives: Inside the Sydney Olympics , University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2003, p. 68.

48 Gordon, The Time of Our Lives , pp. 57-72.

49 Australian Olympic Committee, Annual Report 1999 , Australian Olympic Committee, Sydney, 1999, p. 5.

50 Backing Australia’s Sporting Ability: A More Active Australia , Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2001 partypol/4QPA6/upload_binary/4QPA6.pdf;fileType=application/pdf#search=, accessed 30 April 2018.

51 Roy Masters, ‘Plan To Give Our Athletes a Pay Rise’, Sydney Morning Herald , 16 November 2004. 52 Jolly, Sports Funding .

 53 Heath Gilmore, ‘Coates Warns Fall from Top Five Won’t Be Tolerated’, Sydney Morning Herald , 11 May 2008.

54 National High Performance Plan for Olympic and Paralympic Sports in Australia , Australian Olympic Committee and Australian Paralympic Committee, Sydney, 2009, p. 9. High_Perf_Plan_2009.pdf, accessed 30 April 2018

55 Roy Masters, ‘Money for the masses or Olympic Elite?’ Sydney Morning Herald , 6 September 2008.

56 Masters, ‘Money for the Masses’. 

57 Independent Sport Panel, The Future of Sport in Australia , Department of Health and Aging, Canberra, 2009,, accessed 30 April 2018.

58 Australian Sport: The Pathway to Success , Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2010. 59 Bonny Symons-Brown, ‘Sport Set for Biggest Funding Ever’, Sydney Morning Herald , 11 May 2011.

60 Nicole Jeffrey, ‘Coates to “Let loose” in Sport Fight’, Australian , 4 May 2017.

61 Gerard McManus, ‘Kevin Rudd Says Sports Won’t Suffer Cuts’, , 16 September 2009, news-story/0f632554f018e9df7903aedbc7da32c5, accessed on 23 April 2018. 

62 Nicole Jeffery, ‘Brits on Notice as Athletes Get $2.5m to Snare Medals’, Australian , 29 January 2011.

63 Australian Sports Commission, Australia’s Winning Edge 2012–22: Our Game Plan for Moving from World Class to World Best , Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 2012 Australias_Winning_Edge.pdf, accessed 30 April 2018.

64 John Stensholt, ‘Winning Edge Funding Strategy a Loser, According to John Coates’, Australian Financial Review , 19 August 2016.

65 Mike Colman, ‘Australian Institute of Sport Hoping Controversial Strategy Leads to More Olympic Medals in Rio’, Courier Mail (Brisbane), 13 May 2016. http:// 10488264a55b2e1fb9b2c1, accessed 30 April 2018.

66 ‘Roche Seeks to Topple Coates as AOC Head’, SBS News , 20 March 2017,, accessed on 23 April 2018. 

67 Danni Roche, ‘A New Vision is Needed for Our Future Olympians’, Australian Financial Review , 3 May 2017. 

68 Jane Cadzow, ‘Horrendous Enemy, Terrific Friend: What Drives AOC Head John Coates?’ Canberra Times , 6 October 2017.

69 John Coates letter to ASC Chairman John Wylie, 13 January 2017,, accessed on 23 April 2018.

70 Nicole Jeffrey, ‘Coates to “Let Loose” in Sports Fight’, Australian , 4 May 2017.

71 Coates letter to Wylie, p.9

72 Greg Baum, ‘Olympics Were Once Our Ego Incarnate: Would Regime Change Bring Back the Lustre?’ Sydney Morning Herald , 28 April 2017.

 73 Nicole Jeffrey and Joe Kelly, ‘Greg Hunt Denies Taking Sides on Olympic Boss’, Australian , 27 March 2017.

74 Chris Barrett, ‘Australian Olympic Committee Chief John Coates Abandons Tokyo Games Medal Target’, Sydney Morning Herald , 24 August 2017.

75 ‘XIVth OLYMPIAD LONDON 1948’, Olympic Review , June-August 1950 pp. 45–7.

76 Medals were also won in archery at Athens 2004 and Rio 2016.

77 A. J. Veal, Kristine Toohey and Stephen Frawley, ‘The Sport Participation Legacy of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Other International Sporting Events Hosted in Australia’, Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events , vol.4,  2012, pp. 155-84.

 78 Mike Hytner, ‘Sports Lottery Will Fund New National Sports Plan, Says Greg Hunt’, Guardian (Australian edition), 22 May 2017, sport/2017/may/22/sports-lottery-will-fund-new-national-sports-plan-says-greghunt, accessed on 27 April 2018.

79 Nicole Jeffrey,’ No More Winning Edge for High Performance Funding System’, Australian , 14 December 2017.

80 Australian Olympic Committee , Annual Report 2017 , Australian Olympic Committee, Sydney, 2018, p. 5 files/dmfile/aoc-annual-report-2017.pdf, accessed 30 April 2018.

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