Coates' Olympic life came by chance

John Coates became involved in the Olympics by chance.

A coxswain who grew too big, his physical traits were never going to get him far.

His talents are out of the boat.

A sharp legal mind, persuasive, streetwise, tough, charming. According to some, he's the best sports administrator in the world.

Those talents have taken Coates to every Games since 1976, a period in which he's overseen Australia's emergence from Olympic basket case to powerhouse.

But for the first time since he was rowing team manager at Montreal in 1976, he's not at the coal face.

Stepping down from the chef de mission role after six Games at the helm, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president admits he'll find it odd not to be leading the athletes in London, but says the team is in good hands with new boss Nick Green.

It should be, Green was mentored and hand-picked by Coates.

"I've learned from seeing one of the best operate," dual Olympic gold medallist Green says.

"What he's done in sport is incredible.

"I think in Australia we don't see his influence as much as the world sees his influence.

"In the Olympic movement, the majority of his work is done globally. He's positioned Australia in the eyes of the Olympic movement in the highest level possible.

"I see that around the world. I see how Australia is highly regarded by all the National Olympic Committees.

"If there's an issue that affects an organising committee, we'll see the larger committees, the Americans, the Germans, they all come to John Coates. They all come to him for advice."

He's certainly sought after and, even though he's no longer Australia's chef de mission, he won't be taking it easy in London.

As well as his commitments as AOC president, Coates is on the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) executive board, is on the London coordination commission and is president of the Court of Arbitration for Sport which will sit when required during the Games.

Many believe the Sydney lawyer should take the next move and stand for the IOC presidency when Jacques Rogge steps down next year.

But, at 62, age is against him and he's content with running for vice president.

"Realistically, vice president is something I would like to do," Coates says.

"It's difficult for someone outside of Europe to be president, you'd have to be prepared to go and live there.

"And I'm not an Olympian. If you can come up with an Olympian, it's a very big positive for the organisation.

"An Olympian in this job takes with them great public respect which is very important."

He may have never competed at an Olympics, but there's no denying his influence on the movement.

Coates learned a lot at his first Games when Australia plumbed a watershed Olympic low.

The team came home from Montreal with one silver and three bronze, its worst result since John Metcalfe's lone triple jump bronze medal in Berlin in 1936.

As the manager of the rowing team, Coates was told they had to raise money themselves if they wanted to travel anywhere and compete before the Games.

He was frustrated by watching quality crews finish out of the medals because of a lack of funding and support and vowed to do something about it.

"There was no government support in those days, just the club system. No centralised institute, no sports sciences, there was some sports medicine, some good training," he says.

"It was clear to me if we were to succeed in international competition ... we had to be better at science and medicine, training, administration, coaching."

He lobbied the federal government for support (and continues to do so), was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport and was a pioneer in recruiting the best international coaches.

A little more than two decades after the Montreal low, Australia won 58 medals, including 16 gold, at the 2000 Sydney Games over which Coates proudly presided.

It was no coincidence it was the period of Coates' ascendancy from a 26-year-old section manager to the respected and authoritative AOC president.

His British Olympic Association counterpart Colin Moynihan describes Coates as the best sports administrator in the world.

"There's no finer sports administrator in the world than John Coates," Moynihan says.

"He's a true leader. His advice and guidance is always intelligent and consistent."

But his Olympic path was by no means planned.

"My involvement was absolutely fortuitous," Coates says.

As a schoolboy cox with Homebush High, the school moved its boats down the Parramatta River to Sydney Rowing Club where he was suddenly "hanging around the boatshed with all these Olympians."

They took him under their wing and encouraged him to stay at the club and take up coaching after he left school.

They also saw the other talents in the Sydney University law student and installed him onto the club's committee.

"So I was sitting on the board with these Olympians," Coates says.

And from there an Olympic life unfolded.

He rose quickly through roles at the Sydney Rowing Club to the Australian Rowing Council and the NSW Olympic Council. By 1980, he was administration director at the AOC, effectively third in charge and took his first team away as chef de mission to Seoul in 1988.

He's been AOC president since 1990.

Under his watch, Australia has become a top five Olympic nation and he still believes the team is capable of finishing among the elite on the medal table in London, although he acknowledges it'll be their toughest Games in some time.

His biggest disappointment though is that the forecasts predict medals in only nine sports compared with 20 in Sydney.

As for Rio in 2016 and beyond, Coates has plans.

Taking advantage of Asian immigration can bring medals in sports such as badminton and table tennis and he believes boxing should be developed more among indigenous youth.

After nearly 30 years in the Olympic movement, he's still got ideas.

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