In June 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison travelled to Japan to meet with world leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka. His agenda featured discussions about free trade, getting extremist content off Facebook and YouTube as well as dinner with then US president Donald Trump.
But Morrison also found time for a quiet meeting with Olympic powerbrokers. It was an encounter that would prove vital to Australia’s charge towards hosting a third Olympic Games in Brisbane in 2032. In Japan at the time was Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and John Coates, the IOC vice-president and president of the Australian Olympic Committee.
Their discussions established the seriousness of the Queensland bid, which has just been given “preferred candidate” status by the IOC including exclusive negotiating rights. In order for Bach to be convinced Brisbane had the full backing of the government, he needed to hear it from the Prime Minister himself. Morrison, a former Tourism Australia boss whose penchant for marketing divides opinions, sold the dream hard.
Coates is left-leaning when it comes to his politics. But he told friends after the meeting he had “never been more proud of my prime minister”.
Bach was left with the distinct impression that the Queensland bid carried the heft of the nation’s coffers from the top down. He was also assured vital infrastructure projects, such as major upgrades to the choked highways north and south of Brisbane, would be delivered on time.
Barring a complete breakdown between the various levels of government, all of whom have enthusiastically backed the proposal, the Queensland games are what Coates – who loves a punt on the horses – might regard as a good thing. The Olympics are coming back to our shores.
Given the uncertainty around the Tokyo Games, which will now go ahead in July in a reduced format, it was exactly the kind of news Bach wanted to hear as the IOC prepared to add to an Olympic roster that already boasted Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.
After a largely chaotic Games in Rio, which left the city broke and with a litany of crumbling, purpose-built stadia, the IOC had little inclination for more adventures outside of proven grounds. With Sydney one of the best Games in history and the Gold Coast hosting an excellent Commonwealth Games in 2018, Australia once again surfaced as an exceedingly safe bet for a major event.
The trio of Bach, Coates and Morrison would rendezvous again in November 2020, this time behind closed doors when Morrison made another trip to Tokyo, this time to meet the nation’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The seeds were well and truly sprouting by then and Morrison later spoke of the benefit he felt a home Olympics would provide for all levels of sport.
Coates told the Herald and The Age on Thursday that Morrison said, “I know the good the Olympics do for sport. This is also an opportunity for the Australian government to stimulate sport again at all levels. It might also get Alan Jones and John Coates off my back about funding for sport.”
Given the relatively cheap price tag for the bid, less than $10 million, it would represent a high-percentage play no matter what the result.
The pace at which the bid has progressed has left many observers stunned. While some rival contenders were still sharpening their pencils, the Brisbane team was putting its signature on a deeply impressive final product. The Budapest bid only formed a committee to look into the feasibility of hosting the Games in late January, while Brisbane’s was completed and made public in February 2019.
Why were the other bidders, which included Doha and a regional bid from Germany, left so flat-footed? Bach was in Australia in May 2019 practically urging Australian governments to throw the project over the line, while the carefully assembled pitch to the Future Hosts Commission ticked almost every box, from the use of existing venues to sustainability and legacy infrastructure.
Coates was challenged as the president of the AOC in 2017 but it’s doubtful if the bid would have tasted success if it wasn’t for his influence. Both he and Bach are officially at arm’s length from the process but Coates knows the value of details and how to navigate a bidding process he helped bring into life as the IOC made changes to the tender process in 2019. One source close to the bid said the south-east Queensland team had “played a blinder”. When representatives met with the Future Host Commission via Zoom on February 8, it was Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman who would deliver the Welcome to Country.
Freeman is not just a sporting giant in Australia. Her story from Sydney 2000 is one of the greatest fables in the history of the Games. As part of her address, Freeman told the commission: “The vast desert land with its wide, open skies and incredible red land was another perfect setting to cultivate my love of running.”
When she spoke of her family, stretching back generations, it sent chills down the spine of those weighing up Brisbane’s move to the top of the pile.
Sydney beach volleyball champion Natalie Cook also lent her voice, as did Bridie Kean, a wheelchair basketballer who was part of teams that won bronze and silver medals across Beijing and London. Coates also played his part, as did Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and federal Sports Minister Richard Colbeck.
After the turmoil of Tokyo, Brisbane bid organisers and the AOC had the distinct feeling the IOC was in the mood to have its mind made up well in advance, so it went big and it went early. When the Future Hosts Commission was presented with an offer that was too good to refuse, it duly gave Brisbane sole access to IOC dialogue until the final requirements are fulfilled, possibly as early as midway through the year.
There were other notable ticks for south-east Queensland in the IOC’s decision, which was made under a revised bidding process that has removed “The winner is … Sydney!” style reveal, along with the hugely expensive and often questionable courting process that was its precursor.
Some issues were more quantitative; basics such as the number of hotel rooms. Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine coasts have more on the way but already satisfy the IOC requirements for a host region. Others spoke of loyalty to the Olympic cause, with the nation having sent athletes to every edition of the modern Summer Games.
There were also external players that had made their voices heard, one of which was US television giant NBC, which paid some $US7.5b for exclusive broadcast rights to show the Summer Games of 2024, 2028 and 2032 along with their winter counterparts.
With Queensland’s world-class coasts to provide a dazzling television backdrop to the Olympic broadcast, awarding the Games to Brisbane and surrounds would be a move met with their weighty blessing.
This was a well-planned sting at every level and relied on strict secrecy during its execution. Those involved in the bid knew early in the week a momentous decision was going to be handed down but, incredibly, the only leak came from the other side of the world, when respected Olympic news service Inside The Games broke news of Queensland’s impending coronation.
By Wednesday afternoon, Coates had already planned a morning media blitz on Thursday, before joining Palaszczuk for a press conference at Queensland’s Parliament House.
Celebrations have been muted and as the IOC went to great pains to point out, it’s not quite over the line yet. But everyone knows this deal is as good as done, while Coates could just barely resist a subtle compliment for his own handiwork when asked for his reaction by 2GB’s Ben Fordham.
“Not bad, hey?”