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Thirsting for gold

Nick Bryant | 18:02 UK time, Friday, 20 November 2009


If you were to compile an Australian power list - we must do that sometime - I wonder where you would insert John Coates, the pit-bull of a man who runs the Australian Olympic Committee?

Like Australia at the Olympics, I reckon he might just get in the top six. But, like Australia at the Olympics, he might struggle to maintain his lofty perch over the coming years.

Always a man for a headline-grabbing soundbite - remember his jibe at the Brits in Beijing that the UK medal haul was impressive for a country with so very few swimming pools and such poor standards of personal hygiene? Mr Coates this week flashed his teeth at the businessman David Crawford, the author of a new report on sports funding, who argued that it is not "sensible" for Australia to aim for a top five finish at the Olympics.

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Crawford also recommended that more money should be spent on popular, high participation sports rather than being targeted at the elite Olympic sports.

In a rip-snorter of a press conference hours after the report had been released, this is how Mr Coates greeted reporters: "Good afternoon. Obviously this is going to be one of the last occasions I see you. The Olympic Games will not be important enough for your editors to bother sending you in future, if Mr Crawford is correct."

He then went nuclear, describing the report as "un-Australian".

Here is his quote, in full: 'It just seems un-Australian for me to settle something for second best. We gain tremendously in terms of international reputation by our performance at the Olympic Games. I thought that was recognised, it hasn't been by this panel."

You can hear a report on the press conference here, and it is well worth a listen and read an editorial from John Coates here.

With Britain devoting squillions to winning more golds at the London games, and rich club nations like France and Italy following suit, David Crawford says it is unrealistic for Australia to try to match them.

He's proposing that Olympic funding remain at its present level, rather than giving it the $100m boost that the Australian Olympic Committee is seeking.

As David Crawford points out, a niche sport like water polo actually receives more money than golf, tennis and bowls combined.

Having married into an Aussie family which can boast an Olympic gold medal, I know the value attached to that sporting bullion.

At my relative's 50th birthday party, we even got to relive the famed commentary from Norman May: "GOLD, GOLD for Australia, GOLD" - which described his medal-winning race at the Moscow Games, and which still to this day sends shivers down Australian spines (it's the Aussie equivalent of "They Think It's All Over").

Clearly, this has long been a country which has projected itself internationally by flaunting its sporting prowess - a statement repeated to the point of sporting cliche.

And remember, the Australian Institute of Sports was set up after the country returned from Montreal - horror or horrors! - without a single gold, when Malcolm Fraser, the then prime minister, hit the panic button.

But could the money, as Mr Crawford suggests, be better spent on grassroots, high-participation sports?

The government will deliver its verdict on the report later in the year.

With the Australian newspaper already calling the Crawford report "a national tragedy" would Kevin Rudd risk offending the great Australian sporting public by giving its findings the rubber stamp?

PS: A further example of the Ozification of world sport: Thierry Henry appears to have become proficient in the skills of Aussie Rules Football.


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