March 24, 2023

Olympic movement mourns Phil Coles, champion canoeist and Australian IOC member | Olympic Games

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has led tributes to former Australian IOC member and three-time Olympic canoeist Phil Coles who died on Saturday. He was 91.

Coles represented Australia as a canoeist at the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics before turning to sports administration. He served as an IOC member from 1982-2011. He played a central role in Sydney winning the rights in 1993 to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, widely recognised as one of the greatest Games ever.

IOC president Bach said the Australian always had the best interests of athletes at heart.

In 1980, the federal government led by Malcolm Fraser pressured the Australian Olympic Federation to support a US-led boycott of the Moscow Games in retaliation for the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Coles was among those who stood firm, ensuring Australia would continue its proud record of competing at every Summer Olympics.

“He was key to getting an Australian Olympic Team to the Olympic Games Moscow 1980 against all requests for a boycott,” Bach acknowledged in a statement. “It made him proud for the rest of his life to have led these athletes into the Olympic Stadium.

“His love for the Olympic Games was at the centre of his life. Personally, I have lost a wonderful friend with whom I shared so many moments of our Olympic lives.

“I will never forget this heartwarming friendliness and his sense of humour. My thoughts are with his beloved Patricia and all his family and many friends.”

After failed bids by Brisbane for the 1992 Olympics and Melbourne for 1996, Coles paid a central role in swaying his fellow IOC members to – narrowly – choose Sydney over favourite Beijing as the 2000 host city.

The Sydney Olympics were widely regarded as among the greatest ever staged.

“It was hard work,” Coles told News Corp in 2012 of the bid process. “More than 60 per cent of the IOC members had never been to Australia at the time and had we not been able to bring those people out to Sydney, we would not have won those Games.

“That was our ace in the hole, being able to show the delegates how beautiful Sydney is.”

Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president Ian Chesterman also paid tribute, saying Coles’s “service to Australian sport was immense”.

“Phil’s passing, after a lifetime in sport, is a sad day for the Olympic movement and for many involved in the wider sports community in Australia,” Chesterman said in a statement.

“I was particularly pleased to see Phil at the Tokyo Olympics at the canoe events; a chance for him to return to one of his host cities of his three Olympic Games as an athlete, and one that was obviously very important to him.

“He greatly enjoyed the opportunity to watch the current-day competitors, the athletes being at the heart of his long service to the Olympic movement.”

Coles was forced to stand down from the Sydney Olympic organising committee in 1999 after being one of 24 IOC members implicated in the bidding bribery scandal for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

An inquiry found Coles received lavish hospitality from Salt Lake City officials and he was officially reprimanded. He acknowledged the affair left a lasting smear on his reputation.

“I would still dearly like to have my name cleared,” Coles said later, “but I’ll let it go. I’ve got heaps of evidence, but to do it (re-open the case) I’ve got to open up a whole hornet’s nest and I don’t want to damage the Olympic movement.”

Coles joined the AOC executive board in 1983 and was a foundation member of the board of the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC). He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours “for service to sport” and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1993.