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State athletics chiefs pen scathing letter about Athletics Australia and call for CEO to undergo leadership coaching


The race to Tokyo is in the final straight, but an explosive letter suggests Australia’s athletics administration is struggling to keep the sport on track.

In October, eight state presidents penned scathing correspondence to the Athletics Australia board accusing the national body of lacking thought leadership, failing to support coaches, not completing commercial agreements and even calling for CEO Darren Gocher to undertake leadership coaching.

The letter is the latest in a succession of hiccups for the sport that have included:

  • the loss of its head of high performance to the UK;
  • a board member quitting a year into their post;
  • the country’s top heptathlete reporting nobody from Athletics Australia had contacted her in more than six months.

The October letter, from all eight presidents of the state member associations, raised specific issues and expressed their “concerns with the current leadership of Athletics Australia”.

“It is the view of the presidents that leadership practices are at the core of these issues and we ask that this be addressed through performance management, development and coaching.”

President of Athletics Australia Mark Arbib downplayed the significance of the letter, telling the ABC it was “standard practice” to prepare for an annual meeting of presidents.

“This year’s letter helped focus us on administrative areas that needed attention and effort; from my perspective it was extremely helpful and gave the meeting real purpose.”

He said the Athletics Australia board continues to work with management and had put in place an independent review of culture and staff practices before the letter had been received.

Letter details problems in athletics

Mr Arbib, a former NSW Labor senator, said the postponement of the Olympics, cancellation of events and the closure of Melbourne offices due to COVID restrictions “has created great stress and disappointment for our athletes, coaches and team”.

“I am proud of the way our athletics community have responded to the challenges, it has tested us at every level of the organisation and we will emerge stronger in the future,” he said.

The letter sets out issues the state presidents wished to “escalate” to the board, including a snap 30 per cent rise in insurance premiums and employee attrition estimated at 75 per cent since the appointment of the current CEO, Darren Gocher.

A statement provided by Athletics Australia said it has reduced insurance rises to 10 per cent and attrition was much lower after redundancies and terminations were taken into account.

A man in a suit smiles at the camera surrounded by a group of Australian athletes
The administration of Athletics Australia, led by CEO Darren Gocher (centre), has been criticised by state athletics presidents.(Supplied)

The letter describes management of and support for coaches and officials as “sub-par”, and stated commercial and digital agreements “remain outstanding”.

Athletics Australia responded by saying “we have this month appointed a senior corporate services manager to assist management and our staff in these areas.”

The letter also recommended “leadership coaching and development” for senior leaders including the CEO.

According to Athletics Australia’s statement, Mr Gocher “has undertaken significant leadership and coaching programs in his current role and throughout his career”.

It also noted his salary had been “significantly reduced at Mr Gocher’s request” during the COVID period.

Two state presidents contacted by ABC declined to elaborate on the letter.

Recent Athletics Australia dramas

On Friday, Mr Arbib released a statement announcing that Eugenie Buckley resigned from the Athletics Australia board. Her departure came in the week following the Annual General Meeting.

Ms Buckley is a lawyer and consultant who has previously held CEO roles at Brisbane Roar FC, ICC Women’s World Cup 2009 and the Australian Professional Footballers’ Association.

“Eugenie has a great intellect and outstanding administrative knowledge, she will be missed,” Mr Arbib said.

She did not respond to requests for comment.

Former CEO of Sport Australia, Kate Palmer, has joined the board.

A man at a podium speaks to a crowd
Athletics Australia President Mark Arbib said the organisation was addressing concerns of state associations.(Supplied: Athletics Australia)

In September, Christian Malcolm departed as Head of High Performance and Coaching to take up a role coaching the UK athletics team.

“Christian Malcolm ultimately left Athletics Australia after being offered the role of Head Coach at UK Athletics,” Mr Arbib said.

“Christian is originally from the UK and he felt his decision would better impact his family.”

A woman clears a bar in high jump
Tori West is Australia’s top ranked heptathlete and wants more contact from Athletics Australia.(Supplied: Facebook/Athletics North Queensland)

Last month, 25-year-old Queensland heptathlete Tori West told The Townsville Bulletin she had not been contacted by anyone from Athletics Australia for six months, despite being the top-ranked Australian.

Athletics Australia recently announced 152 athletes would receive funding under the National Athlete Support Structure (NASS), which supports athletes who have demonstrated the greatest potential to achieve medals.

Ms West was overlooked for selection despite scoring 6028 points earlier this year, above the performance level set out in the NASS policy.

“[She] is unfortunately not a NASS member, and therefore not an athlete we see in contention for the Olympic Games, but all our selection materials are available online and we will ensure she and her coach have the information they need,” Athletics Australia said in a statement.

Mr Arbib added the hardest part of 2020 for athletes has been uncertainty.

“Thankfully we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel and the 2021 Aussie track and field season is going ahead with the calendar released. This should help provide certainty and ensure our athletes can focus on the task ahead.”

Ms West declined to comment.

Athletics Australia is currently undergoing a merger with Little Athletics.

It receives more than $10 million each year in taxpayer funding.

Do you know more? Email jack.snape@abc.net.au or message securely through the Signal app on +61439695398.



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