jobs for the boys at athletics australia


Inside AA Volume II

Simon Allatson arrived in Melbourne as the new head of Athletics Australia in 1999, set with the task of recovering the sport from the embarrassment of the Ekkart Arbeit fiasco and a string of other mistakes by the former CEO Martin Soust.

Allatson was appointed by the new corporate board of Athletics Australia, a group of heavy hitting suits who knew nothing about athletics but a lot about business.

At what can now be pin-pointed as the beginning of the end for Australian athletics, the new board held what new Chairman Andrew Forrest described as a ‘cold-towel’ weekend. A chance to take a fresh look at the sport without baggage. The location was country NSW and amongst others in attendance was radio king Alan Jones, athletes’ representative Simon Baker and golden girl Jane Flemming. IAAF council member Bill Bailey was also in attendance.

Baker, representing the group of serial underperformers who made up AA’s athletes commission believed two figures in athletes had denied them opportunities to compete in the major international events. Flemming, envious of the success of the newly formed and highly successful Melbourne Track Club also weighed in, adding MTC head Nic Bideau to the list. The name Melbourne Mafia invented to cast evil connotations over the trio.

On a white board at the exclusive country residence, Brian Roe, Maurie Plant, Nic Bidea and MTC where written in bold as key ‘road blocks’ in the progress of athletics in this country.

And so the carnage began.

Allatson was charged with the responsibility of removing the so-called Melbourne Mafia.

Shortly after the ‘cold towel’, Allatson, in an article with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Louise Evans said, “Why do we have to be in Melbourne?” he asked. "I have no ties to Melbourne. It is not a shrine. Two things I am enormously concerned about is the accountability and transparency of this organisation; simple things like national team selectors, coaches, managers and medical support will all be advertised nationally and the best people will be appointed, not because they have a direct link into Melbourne. There will be no jobs for the boys.

Of course all those positions for selectors, coaches, managers and medical staff had always been advertised for more than ten years and decisions made by the expert track and field commission – a body dismantled by Allatson.

As he said – there would be no jobs for the boys in the new, transparent, AA.

Having sidelined Plant, Roe and Bideau and all but destructed the Melbourne Track Club through a series of viscous media attacks, Allatson quickly forgot his no jobs for the boy’s statement, appointing his old Sydney mate John Elliott to find sponsorship for Athletics Australia and to be the marketing director of the Sydney Marathon.

No advertisement or recruitment process was undertaken for either role nor Elliott’s soon to be announced position.

In December 2000 Elliott’s role was extended to head what AA triumphantly announced as “TEAM AA TO GUIDE THE FUTURE OF AUSTRALIA’S ATHLETES” in a media release.

AA appointed John Elliott as Marketing Director of Team AA - a management arm that was to “develop, market, service and educate Australia’s athletes from junior to senior level”.

The exact thing that Roe and Plant had done for years as part of their roles at AA.

In its first year according to the AA annual reports, team AA cost $121,000 and in year two $210,739. Despite more than $300,000 in expenses, no revenue was reported for either year. Athletes wanted nothing to do with it. Farcical approaches to Cathy Freeman and Tatiana Grigorieva quickly spread throughout the fraternity. Sponsors who had been told… “yes Cathy will be wearing your shoes in all competitions” were asking questions. Team AA disappeared without a trace.

Elliott’s role continued to grow as he secured the television arrangement with Eurocam at the expense of an in-house SBS production, an arrangement that cost AA in excess of $500,000 over three years.

By 2001 Elliott was now pulling the strings on all marketing activity at AA. He toured regional Australia in search of venues to stage grand prix meetings and local councils who would pay to host AA events. Elliott visited Campbelltown, Newcastle, Ballarat and Bendigo, ignoring expert advice that these venues would not be suitable for elite athletes, only concerned about how much money could be raised.

Campbelltown and Newcastle became grand prix venues.

Results were spectacularly unsuccessful. The costs were enormous as all infrastructure had to be shipped in. Athletes performed poorly at the sub-standard venues and the previously successful AA series was hidden from mainstream media coverage.

Marketing expenses jumped from $775,000 to $1.3 million.

Crowds dwindled, media coverage trickled to a stop, and athletes became disenchanted competing in country venues.

Many remembered competing in Melbourne with crowds in excess of 10,000, or in Sydney when Carl Lewis performed to a packed house or in Adelaide when Linford Christie and Colin Jackson entertained more than 8000 fans. The first ever event in Campbelltown attracted fewer than 800 people.

The new AA continually remarked that previous success was just a figment of the imagination. “The series has never been as successful as it is now” was a mantra continually chanted by the management and board.

2001 also saw the great Diggers debacle. After running a national competition to come up with the name for the Australian Athletics Team, an expert panel made their selection. Elliott and Allatson weren’t convinced on the marketing cache of the winning name and the name Diggers was invented. AA staff trolled through the entries to find someone who had suggested that name so they could have a prize winner.

The public outcry that ensued was an obvious result at a time when our last remaining real-life diggers were hanging up their slouch hats.

At the 2001 World Championships all hell broke lose. Talkback boards melted down and Allatson was forced into a back down after two days of attempting an embarrassing defense.

In an attempt to recover, Elliott and Allatson invented the ‘Lest we forget’ fun runs. Another drain on AA funds that is yet to produce a profit or any meaningful benefits to the RSL.

After two years, 2003 was the last roll of the dice. Elliott and Allatson were convinced the series would be a success on the back of the investment over the past two years. After arguing that no one was interested in the Kenyans or any other international athletes that no-one has ever heard of (meaning of course that they had never heard of them) the duo attempted to secure the services of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery. With Plant now on the sideline completely, Allatson headed the negotiations. The sprint duo’s manager immediately rang Plant after the approach and said, “who is this guy trying to get Marion and Tim to run in Australia”. After the fiasco of the indoor series collapse in the early 1990’s overseas athlete managers wanted to deal with Plant only. Jones and Montgomery had no intention of coming down under unless Plant was involved.

With international athletes difficult to attract due to Plant’s non-involvement the marketing budget was spent on expensive TV commercials, newspaper and radio ads. TV money was again approved despite SBS’s increasing disenchantment with the cost and quality of the delayed coverage package they were receiving.

With no big name internationals to attract media interest, crowds again decreased. No longer were non athletics fans interested in seeing home grown Aussie athletes and many athletics fans also began to loose interest in the now sagging series. Ticket revenue evaporated, well below the blue sky forecasts of AA management. A massive hole in AA finances appeared and a 1.3 millions dollar loss for 2002/03 announced.

At the end of the 2003 season AA axed all consultants in an attempt to keep the office door open for business. Elliott’s involvement with AA officially came to an end although rumours still exist that he is working behind the scenes.

Of course AA’s current situation is now public. No TV, no prize money, no international athletes and no marketing. In essence, the domestic series once viewed by the IAAF as one of, if not the best, domestic series in world athletics has been destroyed.

All this as a result of a job for the boys.