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Business, Olympic Edition Fierce but fair: Australia’s sporting goals for Rio and beyond

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By: Fiona de Jong •  4 years ago •  

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AUSTRALIAN OLYMPIC COMMISSION – FIONA DE JONG, CEO

I FOUND MY WAY INTO TRIATHLONS DURING UNIVERSITY. AT THAT TIME, I WAS STUDYING A DOUBLE DEGREE IN LAW AND IT IN AN ACCELERATED PROGRAM AT BOND UNIVERSITY ON THE GOLD COAST, AND COMPETING IN TRIATHLONS AT THE SAME TIME.

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s someone who like to do things properly, it wasn’t easy juggling a law degree, IT degree and training in three sports, but I did. A typical day was 6 hours in lectures, 6 hours training, 6 hours studying for assignments and 6 hours of sleep. As an academic scholarship holder, I had to keep good grades to stay at university, so I’m sure that contributed to my hard work ethic and ultimately I graduated with honours. I had ambitions of being a decent athlete and a leading intellectual property lawyer, but soon recognised that I couldn’t sustain both well.

You need to know yourself well to make these tough, defining choices in life. I decided I would not likely enjoy being a professional, full-time athlete as I needed mental balance. After a few years as a young lawyer, I really wanted to do the deals rather than document them, and had a preference to deal with people rather than paper. Because I’d studied IT, I moved into an eCommerce role with one of the large banks around the dot com boom of the 90’s. At the time, the banking and finance industries were leaders in technology innovation.

After a series of big projects, I paused and reflected on whether my professional skillset could combine with my sporting interests. So I volunteered at my local triathlon club and spoke with a number of people working in the sports industry to better understand what real jobs existed. In 2004, I came to understand that some skillsets I had were useful to sports administration. A role became available at the AOC and I was fortunate enough to be afforded an opportunity. It’s about your skills and experiences, and the contribution you can make to an organisation that can be more important than industry experience sometimes. When I started in the role, a large part of the role was drafting the selection criteria for the Olympic Teams, so my legal drafting skills were clearly an asset. Secondly, the AOC had very little web presence at the time, let alone a digital or eCommerce strategy, so my experience was well placed.

At the end of the day, the Olympics is large-scale, complex project management, so my work in managing large, complex financial projects was what I could bring to the Olympic organisation. Politically, the AOC was open to a fresh individual, rather than someone with a sports background or alliances. When recruiting into the AOC now, many years down the track, I consider all of those things when evaluating a candidate. I don’t always take people from the sports industry.

THE EVOLUTION OF COACHING

Having spent 10 years in the Director of Sport role before moving to the CEO position 2 years ago, I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to do the work I do. Some things have changed hugely, others not at all. Sadly, the problem with funding sport in Australia has not changed significantly. As a sector, it is still out-spent, out-populated and under-resourced in terms of funding when compared to other nations. It’s deeply disturbing for a country like ours where sport is such a part of the fabric of our society.

Coaching is one area where the level of sophistication and professionalism has accelerated. It is far more superior and sophisticated to what it was 10 years ago. Coaches approach the science of training athletes more holistically too. They’re mostly about developing good people, not just good athletes. Coaching has become a conversation, not a dictatorship. The most effective coaches are those who connect on a personal level and have conversations with athletes to bring out the very best in them as both an athlete and individual. They help athletes come to the right decision rather than tell them what the decision is. Athletes empowered to make their own decisions are generally more self-sufficient and able to achieve more consistently at the highest level.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of incredible people over the years so it’s difficult to identify just one, but Jacco Verhaeren, the Head Coach of Swimming Australia, is one that comes to mind. It’s a courageous move for an iconic sport like swimming to have a non-Australian assume the head coach position, but he is someone who exemplifies the ability to connect with athletes and coaches at a personal level. He has a warmth and personal presence about him that creates an open, collaborative team-based culture. These personal attributes enable him to achieve great results in the pool. Emotional intelligence is increasingly important, particularly in sports with a small participation base and a lack of depth of talent behind its No.1 athlete. In Australia, we need to be able to work with the talent we have, and understand each athlete as individuals in order to get the most out of them.

A TRANSPARENT SELECTION PROCESS

Our role at the AOC is to ensure that selection is a very fair, open and transparent process. We aspire to ensure every athlete is clear on what they need to do to make the Australian Olympic Team. It’s effectively a 3-step process:

  1. Qualification

The athlete needs to meet qualifying standards, or in the case of a team sport, the team needs to qualify, to compete at the Olympic Games. In some sports, Australia qualifies the place and we can choose the athlete, and other sports it’s the individual athlete who qualifies the sport and takes the spot. For example, in tennis it’s based on the ranking of the individual athlete, but in rowing you qualify the boat and the nation decides on who gets a seat in the boat. There’s well-documented criteria to govern this process, all approved by the International Sporting Federation and the AOC/International Olympic Committee (IOC).

  1. Nomination

Once a spot has been qualified for Australia, we need a process to determine which athlete is the best Australian athlete to take that spot. The relevant National Federation (NF)/Sporting Organisation (NSO) decide what is the best way to choose the best Australian in that event. It might be an objective standard, such as winning a particular race, or a subjective standard, such as at the coach’s discretion.

Prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, there were a lot of appeals over athletes selected for sports, so in 2004, a number of sports tried to take a more objective approach to make selections more ‘cut and dry’. But come Athens 2004, some sports realised this selection method didn’t always result in the best athletes being on the start line. By the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, many sports adopted a bet-each-way approach, including one objective spot (win a race and you’re in) and one subjective spot (coach’s discretion).

  1. Selection

Once the NF/NSO has nominated their athlete to the AOC, we evaluate whether they should be selected. It’s not based on performance but rather on demonstrating the attributes or meeting the standards of behaviour required of our Olympians. Being an Olympian is more than just being an elite athlete, they are role models for Australia and need to demonstrate the values the Olympic movement represents. As custodian of the Olympic movement in Australia, that’s what the AOC is here to do. Out of respect for all the past and future Olympians too, the athletes should know it is not just about being a great sports person but also being a balanced human carrying the attributes expected of our sporting heroes. There have been only a few cases where a sport has nominated an athlete and the AOC has chosen not to select them.

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On average, going into an Olympic Games, we have around 28-35 selection disputes. These are questions raised by athletes wanting to challenge a decision, qualification, nomination or selection, and around 5 or so end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. We are currently in the middle of 7 National Federation nomination disputes and there will be more. Making or not making an Olympic Team is a defining moment in an athlete’s life and like any important decision or moment, how it’s communicated is so important. This responsibility often falls to the coaches to inform athletes of this very special and important decision.

The AOC requires each sport to adopt a policy for counselling and assisting athletes seeking nomination or selection. We ask them to document who is going to make the call, when they’re going to make it, how they’re going to make it. Is it a phone call? A list of names put up on the website? Is it made 10 o’clock at night or 9 o’clock in the morning? We ask that they think about all of those things, and require that they make people available for the athletes to talk to when that decision is communicated. The AOC makes an Olympic Appeals Consultant available to talk them through what their options are around challenging a decision and pursuing an appeal. What makes the Olympics so appeal-able is the fact that it’s so rare. It only comes around every 4 years. We understand we are dealing with people’s lives, livelihood and dreams, which is why I’m personally so passionate about the process being fair and transparent. In Australia, we have more appeals than most nations because we have a culture of allowing athletes to ask questions and challenge authority. In this way, appeals provide an avenue for athletes to question decisions and encourages sports to be transparent in the decision-making process. The same processes apply to the Winter Olympics and the Paralympics.

LOOKING AHEAD AT TOKYO 2020

Agenda 2020 is under the leadership of IOC president, Thomas Bach. It’s a reform agenda sweeping through the Olympic movement. We’ve seen a lot of anti-doping matters recently and I would hope we will have a cleaner Games come Tokyo 2020 than we’ve ever had. In Tokyo, we will see some new sports on the program, which will likely present new opportunities and focus for Australia. These sports will likely include non-traditional sports like surfing, skateboarding and rock climbing. One of the pillars of underpinning the Agenda 2020 reform is ensuring that the Olympics are relevant to the youth of today. We need to make sure the Olympics and sport in general is appealing. Things like the Olympic channel (a digital app launched for Rio) we hope will build a fan base amongst young people the world over between Olympic Games, not just during the 19 days of the event. Hopefully by 2020 the digital footprint of the Olympics has grown and is engaging young people in new ways.

For the Rio 2016 Olympics, the leadership Team have 3 ambitions:

  1. Reclaim Australia’s place in the top 5 nations on the medal tally, meaning more medals across more sports.
  2. Have our athletes walk away from the Games having had one of the best experiences of their lives.
  3. For our athletes to have felt part of a team with a unity of purpose and united in desire for the 2016 Australian Olympic Team to come home as the most respected team in the world.

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