Olympics exec orders reluctant Australian public official to attend Tokyo opening ceremony: 'You are going'

·4 min read

Look no further to understand the power dynamic between the Olympics and the nations that host them. 

As the Tokyo Olympics launched a soft start ahead of Friday's opening ceremony, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2032 Summer Games to Brisbane, Australia. Hours after the news was announced on Wednesday, Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk answered questions at a news conference in Tokyo.

That's where the following happened.

Coates took issue with Palaszczuk's previous statements that she and the rest of the Brisbane delegation didn't plan to attend the Tokyo opening ceremony. He ordered her to attend — while sitting next to her on a stage for all the world to see.

'You are going to the opening ceremony'

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“You are going to the opening ceremony. I am still the deputy chair of the candidature leadership group," Coates said to uncomfortable laughter from the media corps in attendance. "And so far as I understand, there will be an opening and a closing ceremony in 2032, and all of you have got to get along there and understand the traditional parts of that, what’s involved in an opening ceremony."

"So none of you are staying and hiding in your rooms, all right."

Palaszczuk remained momentarily silent before responding: “I don’t want to offend anybody, so ... "

Annastacia Palaszczuk and President of the Australian Olympic Committee John Coates speak to the media during a press conference after the IOC announced targeted dialogue ahead of the 2032 Brisbane Olympic Games bid, at Queensland Parliament House on February 25, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk AOC president John Coates had a tense exchange on Wednesday. (Jono Searle/Getty Images/File)

Coates then continued: 

"You've never been to an opening ceremony have you?" Coates said. "You don’t know the protocols. I think it’s a very important lesson for everyone here. Opening ceremonies cost in the order of $75 million to $100 million. It’s a major, major exercise for any organizing committee. It puts the stamp on the Games. It's very important to the broadcasts that follow.

"It’s my very strong recommendation that the premier and the lord mayor and the minister be there and understand it."

Palaszczuk: 'I'm going to do whatever John Coates tells me to do'

According to Reuters, Palaszczuk told an Australian morning show on Thursday that she intends to comply with Coates' orders.

"I'm going to do whatever John Coates tells me to do," she said. "I am not going to offend the International Olympic Committee now that we have been awarded the Games."

In case it's not clear, Coates is a powerful IOC vice president who played a central role in Brisbane being awarded the Games. Palaszczuk is the elected chief executive of the Australian state — Queensland — set to host the games. 

The American rough equivalent of this scene would see USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland barking orders at California Gov. Gavin Newsom in public because Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Summer Olympics — which, of course, she hasn't done. 

Olympics continue to flex power

But it's a prime example of the power and the sway the Olympics hold over their host nations — a lesson Japan is learning in no uncertain terms right now. The Games are going on despite intense public backlash because of the nation's ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

Tokyo is a densely populated city lagging in vaccines rates and experiencing continued increases of coronavirus infections. With fans banned and business shut down, the city and nation won't reap the economic benefits that normally come with hosting the Olympics. 

In short, many in Japan don't want to put the nation's public health at further risk to a potential super spreader event so some games can be played. But the Games will go on. Because the IOC holds the power thanks to a contract that grants it exclusive rights to cancel them.

So if John Coates wants Annastacia Palaszczuk to attend Friday's opening ceremony against her better judgment, then Palaszczuk is going to attend the opening ceremony.

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