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Australia's Male Olympics Chief Lectured A Female Premier. It Didn't Go Over Well

John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, has come under fire for his remarks to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordering her to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.
Toru Hanai
Getty Images
John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, has come under fire for his remarks to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordering her to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

Australian Olympics chief John Coates is being criticized after lecturing Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and ordering her to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Palaszczuk had previously said she wouldn't be attending Friday's ceremony.

"I was reading some questions about you going to the opening ceremony," Coates told Palaszczuk. "You are going to the opening ceremony," he then said, crossing his arms as he spoke.

Coates made the remarks at a news conference where he and Palaszczuk were celebrating the Queensland city of Brisbane's successful bid to host the 2032 Games. He said the premier should attend Tokyo's kickoff event for her own edification, to help Queensland officials prepare for their hosting duties.

"All of you will get along there, and understand the traditional parts of that, what's involved in an opening ceremony," Coates said. "None of you are staying behind and hiding in your rooms, all right?"

Criticism pours in, with accusations of mansplaining

Palaszczuk looked away from Coates as he spoke. When she later addressed his remarks, she merely stated with a brief laugh, "I don't want to offend anybody."

But Coates' comments were quickly criticized as awkward at best and belittling or even bullying at worst. In response, he said people have distorted what happened.

"My comments regarding the Premier and the Opening Ceremony have been completely misinterpreted by people who weren't in the room," Coates said in a statement sent to NPR. "Absolutely I believe the Premier should come to the Opening Ceremony and she has accepted. I am thrilled about that. Attending the Opening Ceremony has always been her choice."

Those words did little to allay critics who note that Coates took his forceful stance not in a closed meeting but in an international news conference that put the world's spotlight on Brisbane and Queensland.

If Palaszczuk must attend an Olympic opening ceremony, some also said, she should be free to choose one that doesn't occur during a pandemic.

The premier responds

Palaszczuk said she and two other officials now plan to be at Friday's ceremony.

Clips from the exchange have been airing steadily on news programs in Australia. In an interview with Australian public broadcaster ABC, Palaszczuk downplayed the incident. It was natural, she said, to change her position on attending the opening ceremony now that Brisbane has been tapped to become an Olympic city.

She also said Coates played a pivotal role in the successful bid.

"He's fantastic. If we didn't have John Coates, this would not have happened," the premier said.

"I've known John for years," Palaszczuk said. "So what's happened now is that the lord mayor [of Brisbane] and the federal minister and I are expected to go. So I will leave that to John Coates and [International Olympic Committee President] Thomas Bach, but let me make it very clear: I am not going to offend anyone, now that we've just been awarded the Games."

''You don't know the protocols,'' Coates said

At the joint news conference, Coates also interrogated the Queensland leader about her familiarity with the Olympics' biggest single event.

"You've never been to an opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, have you?" he asked. After Palaszczuk shook her head, he added, "You don't know the protocols. I think it's part of a very important lesson for everyone here."

He then took a deep breath and explained that the ceremony costs tens of millions of dollars and is an important opportunity to set the tone at an Olympics.

"My very strong recommendation is the premier and the lord mayor and the minister be there, and understand it," Coates added.

Some of Coates' critics called his remarks quintessential mansplaining.

"John Coates is another one of those men who, even if you've never worked with him, you've worked with him," writer Anna Spargo-Ryan said of the video. "His body language and tone is so familiar it makes your stomach turn."

Coates is a longstanding Olympics leader

Defending his remarks to Palaszczuk, Coates said in his statement, "The Premier and I have a long standing and very successful relationship. We both know the spirit of my remarks and I have no indication that she was offended in any way."

Coates, 71, wields a great deal of power. He has led the Australian Olympic Committee for some 30 years. He is also a longstanding member of the International Olympic Committee, where he currently serves as a vice president. He has played central roles in a number of Games, including the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Coates survived a rare challenge to his leadership role in 2017 when he defeated Danni Roche in the election for AOC chief. During the campaign, she had promised to overhaul Australia's Olympic Committee — a message that resounded in part due to allegations from the organization's former chief executive, Fiona de Jong, who said a culture of bullying and intimidation had thrived under Coates' leadership.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.