Less than a month before the London Olympics, Australian athletics is in disarray.
Following the controversy over steeplechaser Genevieve LaCaze's exclusion, then inclusion, in the Games team - which caused friction between Athletics Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee - other revelations have emerged that could embarrass a sport that received more than $20 million of taxpayers' money over the past four years.
Fairfax’s Daniel Lane spoke to Athletics Australia chief executive Dallas O’Brien.
Daniel Lane: Has Eric Hollingsworth’s position as high-performance manager been compromised by the AOC overruling the LaCaze decision, despite his insistence she shouldn’t be picked because she qualified after the deadline?
Dallas O’Brien: Not at all. In fact, Eric’s position is exactly the same as the sport’s. As the board, we believed strongly, as our first board meeting supported, that the cut-off date was the cut-off date as agreed by the AOC. The AOC changed the goalposts and it was their decision, and strongly suggested we put her in the team, and our board agreed to that. We changed the whole qualifying date with the AOC. As far as Eric goes, he was stating the sport’s strong line at that time.
DL: Did Sean Wroe, a runner Eric coached, receive an extension to qualify for an Australian team that was not available to others?
DO: If you’re talking about Daegu, the world championships last year, there was no extension. There was discussion around Sean being eligible for the individual 400m as well as the relay. He was nominated in the team in the relay and he was also entered into the individual. A team manager, or head coach as Eric is, is able to do that in that situation once a person is nominated in the team. There was nothing different to Sally Pearson also getting nominated to run the 4x100m relay.
DL: There have also been suggestions Hollingsworth is trying to manage athletes. Is this true?
DO: Not that I’m aware. Certainly he has a big job with us as high-performance manager and we don’t feel it’s suitable that he coaches or manages anyone. Certainly management hasn’t been brought to our notice at all and we wouldn’t want that to be happening.
DL: There are rumours a letter was sent to Athletics Australia by a former Olympic champion raising concerns about Eric’s behaviour at the world championships in Korea last year. Was there one?
DO: We did receive some correspondence from a few people regarding Daegu, which we investigated. [We] looked into a number of allegations, if you like. We ... did not find anything untoward at all, except perhaps a little bit of a misconception on a couple of things that happened. We were quite happy with Eric’s responses and from a number of other coaches and athletes we spoke to who were around it.
DL: What were the allegations raised?
DO: There was some allegations about some inappropriate behaviour that were unfounded.
DL: What message do you think athletes are getting from decisions to place little emphasis on sprinters and other events for throws, jumps and walking?
DO: People have a misconception of that. From a sprinting point of view, we’ve had three sprint relay teams qualify for the Olympics in the 4x100m men and women and the 4x400m men. We have Melissa Breen, who has qualified for the women’s 100m, and Sally Pearson has qualified for the sprint hurdles. They’re examples if our sprinters are up to the qualifying standard we’ll support them. Yes, we’ve had more success in some of the other events of late and the sprints are very hard and competitive fields, as is the distance running events, but we see them as just as important as any other event.
DL: How is funding decided? You were quoted on Running Tribe saying a lot of people chasing an Olympic berth were being funded. But some, like Tamsyn Manou, haven’t received any funding from Athletics Australia for some time.
DO: It’s based on a criteria according to their ranking in the world. It’s a combination of Athletics Australia funding and Australian Sports Commission funding. There’s criteria, and that criteria on our website, so there’s nothing personal against anyone or any particular event. If they are top four or top eight in the world, accordingly they’re ranked one, two or three. Our relay runners receive some of that funding.
DL: Was the German throwing coach, Uwe Hohn, sacked for an inappropriate relationship with an athlete?
DO: There was certainly a mutual agreement he would no longer coach. I believe there was a relationship that was happening while I was new in my tenure [Hohn was recruited before O’Brien’s appointment] but it was a mutual agreement that it wasn’t appropriate for a coach to be in a relationship [with an athlete].
DL: Did our throwers have to go to New Zealand to train under Hohn because he couldn’t get a visa to work here?
DO: I’m not aware of that and have never heard that. I know Uwe is from Europe and I think a few of our throwers, including Jarrod Bannister, were under him for a while but I’m not across the New Zealand situation at all.
DL: How much money was invested in Hohn? And was it a success?
DO: I haven’t got that in front of me. It was funded by the Sports Commission/AIS program. It was part of a throws program we were trying to establish, just as we have in Western Australia with Alex Parnov and our pole-vaulters and Gary Bourne has for our jumpers. Hohn was targeted for our throws coach and unfortunately that didn’t work.
DL: There are rumours athletics Australia have spent $400,000 on pole vaulter Steve Hooker’s athletics campaign.
DO: It’s nowhere near it. He has a scholarship at WAIS. We fund him accordingly. He’s one of our tier-one athletes but he’s certainly not our top-funded athlete. Our funding goes between $10,000 to $50,000, so it’s nowhere near $400,000. He may be getting that through private sponsorships, but it’s nowhere near anything like the sport or the Australian Sports Commission support.
DL: Are taxpayers seeing value for the $20 million I understand the Australian Sports Commission has given athletics over the past four years?
DO: I would hope so. The high-performance plan since Beijing, I think we’re heading in the right direction. It looks like we will have 55 athletes – if not 56 or 57 over the next few days with a bit of luck – which is our second biggest team behind Sydney. I think that is good value. We have 59 junior athletes in Spain at the world juniors, twice the amount we had two years ago. Our Paralympian program is as strong as ever.