Veteran Australian sports administrator John Coates might have expected to wake on Thursday to national adoration – bouquets for a crowning achievement after five decades in the Olympic movement.
But the morning after Brisbane was announced as host of the 2032 Olympic Games, Australians largely paused celebrations and rounded on the bid’s most influential backer – some even calling for his resignation – over his press conference comments to the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.
An International Olympic Committee vice-president, Coates appeared to order Palaszczuk to attend the Tokyo games opening ceremony during a press conference after the announcement. The awkward exchange has dominated Australian news coverage since, more so than the prospect of the 2032 Games.
“You are going to the opening ceremony,” Coates said, looking over at Palaszczuk sitting next to him.
“I am still the deputy chair of the candidature leadership group [for the 2032 bid]. So far as I understand, there will be an opening and a closing ceremony in 2032, and all of you have got to get along there and understand the tradition parts of that, what’s involved in an opening ceremony.
“None of you are staying behind hiding in your rooms, all right?”
On Twitter, Coates was the top trending topic in Australia on Thursday morning, while “mansplaining” and “appalling” also appearing in the top 10 at times.
The former chief executive officer of Swimming Australia, Leigh Russell, said Coates’s treatment of Palaszczuk was “disgusting” and “yet another example of how women are treated in sport”.
Palaszczuk’s reluctance to attend the opening ceremony in Tokyo was largely down to domestic political sensitivities. Her government had pushed to lower international arrival caps as part of its pandemic response. The fact she was even in Tokyo was opposed by more than 130,000 people, who signed a petition.
Watching from her hotel room, rather than the stadium, helped make the point her trip was for official business, not leisure.
In Tokyo, some reporters who attended the press conference think the reaction has been overblown. Coates’ heavy-handed intervention came at the end of a combative press conference where Palaszczuk was repeatedly pressed about why she had travelled to Tokyo – for a foregone conclusion – when her state continues to battle Covid-19 challenges. The more charitable view in Tokyo is that Coates was hoping to provide cover for the Queensland premier.
But comments on social media frequently called Coates out for patronising women.
Thérèse Rein, the wife of the former primer minister Kevin Rudd, said Coates would not have “spoken down like that to a man who was leader of a government”.
Coates’s Wikipedia page was temporarily updated to call him “the self-appointed head of Queensland”.
The sports administrator has been involved in every summer Olympics going back to Montreal in 1976. He has led the Australian Olympic Committee since 1990 and led the Sydney 2000 bid.
In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Coates said his comments had been “completely misinterpreted by people not in the room”.
“The Premier and I have a long standing and very successful relationship. We both know the spirit of my remarks and I have no indication that she was offended in any way.
“Those in doubt should ask her.”
For her part, Palaszczuk has sought to downplay any controversy, confirming she will now attend the event.
“I’ve known John for years,” she told the ABC. “So what’s happened now is that the lord mayor and the federal minister and I are expected to go. So I will leave that to John Coates and Thomas Bach.
“But let me make it clear – I am not going to offend anyone now that we’ve just been awarded the Games.”
At a press conference on Thursday morning, AOC chef de mission Ian Chesterman did likewise.
“Can I just say: they know each other very well, they have great respect for each other and I know that the premier is completely capable of making up her own mind about anything she wants to do,” Chesterman said.
The IOC said in a statement that “as future host, [Brisbane] is invited to the opening ceremony” in Tokyo.
“This is part of their journey towards fulfilling their ambitions to organise the best possible Olympic and Paralympic Games for their own communities.”
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