With 39 days to the London Olympics it’s an exciting time for Olympic sports.
It’s also a potentially dangerous time, as the spotlight burns much brighter on the Olympic sports – the athletes and administrators -than in the previous three and half years.
This has its advantages, such as Tim Sheridan’s brilliant Wide World of Sports story on the talents of javelin thrower Kim Mickle. It’s a story unlikely to be told at any other time than in the months prior to an Olympics.
The flip side is the increased interest often exposes the underbelly that exists in all sports but goes unnoticed for most of the four year Olympic cycle.
Triathlon, swimming, rowing and weightlifting have all been in the spotlight in recent weeks. They have handled the media blowtorch with varying degrees of success.
It was the turn of athletics last week, and after celebrating the announcement of a 54-strong team, including the discretionary selection of rising sprint star Melissa Breen, Athletics Australia clutched defeat from the jaws of victory by totally botching another made-in-heaven media story.
The unexpected qualifying performance by young up and comer Genevieve LaCaze was a marketers dream. Eloquent, ambitious, likeable and let’s face it, beautiful, LeCaze had athletics fans cheering for a new name.
However her effort came less than 48 hours after the Athletics Australia cut off date.
A social media blitz snowballed instantly under the #letlacazego and #letlacazerun hashtags.
By Friday lunchtime, AOC boss John Coates had leapt to LaCaze’s aid, providing a direct invitation to a spot on the Olympic team.
Almost at the same time, as the Athletics Australia board assembled to contemplate what they should do, AA’ s high performance manager Eric Hollingsworth made his own thoughts known to Fairfax athletics writer Michael Gleeson.
His view was straight forward, she was too late. There could be no change to the date. Rules are rules. LaCaze wasn’t going to London.
“As far as I am concerned it is one of the cultural issues of this sport – and I was brought in to bring clarity, rather than everything being done behind closed doors,” Hollingsworth said.
As LaCaze and her supporters waited, the AOC formalised their view via Twitter @AUSOlympicTeam. They wanted her in.
We would love to have Genevieve LaCaze in London on the Australian Olympic Team. Congratulations on a fantastic run!
Hollingsworth’s position inflamed the athletics fraternity, causing a social media frenzy. To read more on Hollingsworth, see my story for News Limited last week, before this hailstorm. He is a polarising figure, so opposition quickly flowed.
So Coates and the AOC wanted LaCaze in London, Hollingsworth didn’t, but what would the AA board do?
To the disbelief of the athletics community, Coates and the AOC, AA not only rejected LaCaze’s qualifying time, but they delivered a cold statement to support their decision.
Crafted by lawyers to defend AA’s position, the statement screamed “we are against the athlete.”
To the fraternity it was breathtaking in its lack of sympathy.
It also put Athletics Australia at odds with Coates, the AOC and the entire athletics community they represent.
Athletics Australia CEO Dallas O’Brien was forced to front the media. This was unfair. He had to sell the unsellable. His key message writers failed him miserably. He repeatedly said that AA had made the decision “because hundreds of athletes” would be impacted if they changed their mind on qualification dates.
“Hundreds”? Who were the hundreds? No more than 10 athletes would be impacted, and most of them would benefit from an extension to the qualifying deadline.
This resulted in more scorn for AA via social media and on Saturday morning it was revealed that only two of the seven directors had supported LaCaze.
More damaging was the recollection by athletics blog writer Tim McGrath from the well read athletics website Inside Athletics that Hollingsworth had a poor memory.
Inside Athletics posted that Athletics Australia had bent the date rules last year. What the article didn’t say was that it was Hollingsworth who unilaterally instructed the entry of an athlete he personally coaches, 400m runner Sean Wroe, for the individual event at the 2011 world championships.
Inside Athletics had an official response at the time that said Wroe was included “just in case”. Yet this luxury wasn’t provided to any other athlete, nor was it done with the approval of the selectors or the Athletics Australia board.
At the time, athletes and coaches in Daegu were furious that Hollingsworth had delivered such favoured treatment to his own athlete. Back home the selectors were appalled and the AA board delivered a please explain.
Hollingsworth’s actions in 2011 made his hardline approach to LaCaze and his personal mission for clarity and openness to be in total opposition to his own actions less than twelve months earlier.
So by mid morning Saturday some AA board members decided enough was enough. Phone calls were made, the AOC consulted once more and the board reconvened.
As we all waited, the AOC tweeted again:
@GenGen_LaCaze We will be doing our best to get you to London. Your job is to stay fit and fast! #thesussiesaecoming
With no other choice, LaCaze was in - this was now a “win-win” for everyone.
It was a decision that should have been made in the first place, but certainly the second Coates made his support so clear more than 24 hours earlier.
But the damage was done. Hollingsworth’s lack of consistency and total lack of compassion has angered the entire athletics fraternity, leaving an already polarising character totally without support.
And for the board, whose job it is to work for the athlete, they have been portrayed as being totally against the athlete, an untenable situation for the board members who didn’t want a talented young athlete to represent them and our country at the Olympic Games.
They tarnished their own reputations, the brand of the organisation they direct and with it the faith of the entire athletics community in the space of 24 hours.
Athletics Australia demands the highest of international standards from their athletes, but sadly failed terribly in their own performance, which was a long, long way from world class.
And we still have 39 days to go… Which sport is next?