SYDNEY/MEBOURNE (Reuters) - The surest sign that the tide had turned definitively against plans to press ahead with the Tokyo Games this year might have come on Monday when the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) instructed its athletes to prepare for 2021.
The decision was made after a meeting of the AOC board chaired by John Coates, which unanimously agreed that restrictions introduced to contain the coronavirus made it impossible to send a team to Tokyo in July.
Coates, self-isolating after a trip to Lausanne, did not recuse himself from the teleconference and played a full part in a meeting that concluded with the decision that Australian athletes would not go to Japan this year.
Given that AOC President Coates is also the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Coordination Commission for the Tokyo Games, it was quite a statement.
Coates, an IOC vice president and close ally of IOC President Thomas Bach, had religiously followed the official line that the Games would go ahead as planned on July 24 up until last week.
After the AOC statement was released, Coates immediately self-imposed another lockdown, this time on the media, and started working on plans to deliver the Games in 2021.
The 69-year-old lawyer certainly knows his way around a Summer Games having made his name in Olympic circles by playing a leading role in the bid for, and successful delivery of, the 2000 edition in his home city of Sydney.
Coates was a cox who cut his teeth in sports administration at Rowing Australia before going on to lead his country’s delegation as Chef de Mission at six Summer Games from 1988.
Renowned as a fine administrator with the interests of athletes firmly at heart, he can also be a fierce adversary.
Coates famously refused to shake the hand of John Wylie at an athletics meet in Melbourne in 2017 and insulted the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) chairman using an expletive that polite company, even Down Under, blanches at.
He accused Wylie of trying to oust him from the AOC, which Coates has run, critics would say almost as a personal fiefdom, since 1990.
There was a challenge to his leadership from Olympic hockey gold medalist Danni Roche later that year that focused largely on his A$700,000 ($416,920) annual consultancy fee, but Coates comfortably saw it off.
He later explained that he saw the challenge as a bid by “barbarians at the gate” to get their hands on the A$150 million ($89.34 million) Olympic foundation fund that he passionately believes ensures the independence of the AOC.
He learned the importance of that independence when he was a leading advocate of the AOC’s decision to send a team to the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the face of opposition from the Australian government, who were backing calls for a boycott.
That history and his strong loyalty to the Olympic movement suggests that Monday’s AOC statement was less a boycott threat than early recognition of an inevitable postponement.
($1 = 1.6790 Australian dollars)
Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Peter Rutherford