By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - John Coates's long reign over the Australian Olympic Committee faces its first challenge in 27 years on Saturday when national sports federations vote in a presidential election at the committee's annual general meeting.
Unopposed since assuming the presidency in 1990, Coates is being challenged by Olympic hockey gold medallist Danni Roche who has taken aim at his A$700,000 ($520,000) salary and pledged to divert more funding to athletes from administration.
Coates, an IOC vice president and one of the world's most powerful sports officials, has not taken the challenge lying down, casting Roche as a "puppet" of government-appointed mandarins who, he alleges, are bent on eroding the AOC's independence.
Few countries take sport as seriously as Australia and the campaigning has been bruising for both sides.
Athletes, media pundits and business leaders have queued up to take sides and pointed attacks from the rival camps have played out in the country's newspapers almost daily.
"For God's sake John Coates, at least be original in your insults," Kristina Keneally, a former premier of New South Wales state, said in comments published by the Australian newspaper on Thursday.
"Danni Roche is a highly qualified, well-educated business woman and sports administrator ... Dare I say it, she's nobody's puppet and girl."
Analysts see the race as too hard to call, but Coates has more to lose.
The 66-year-old is the head of the IOC's coordination commission for the 2020 Tokyo Games but he would lose the job and his other IOC roles if defeated in the ballot.
He will prove hard to dislodge, though, as an astute political operator who controls much of the funding that sends Australia's huge teams to the Olympics.
Lawyer Coates played a key role in securing the 2000 Sydney Olympics, while shoring up the AOC's financial independence by retaining the Games' marketing rights before selling them back to the New South Wales government for A$90 million in 2001.
But he has been bruised by allegations of bullying at the AOC after former CEO Fiona de Jong made a formal complaint against the AOC's media director Mike Tancred.
Tancred, a long serving lieutenant of Coates, was forced to step down last week and the AOC executive board said it would review the organisation's workplace practices. [nL4N1HY1VB]
Coates described the allegations as part of a "malicious" smear campaign and a number of prominent former athletes leapt to his defence.
He retains much admiration for bringing the Olympics to Australia but pundits have lamented the country's slide down the medal tables in recent Games.
Having finished fourth at Athens in 2004, Australia was 10th at Rio last year and the disappointing haul caused friction between the AOC and the Australian Sports Commission, the funding arm of the federal government.
Coates has made no secret of his antipathy for ASC chairman John Wylie, accusing the wealthy Melbourne businessman of trying to muscle in on the AOC's territory and of pulling the strings behind Roche's candidacy.
A vote by the wider Australian public might see Coates deposed, if only for a desire for change after nearly three decades in power.
But it will come down to 93 votes, with 80 cast by 40 national sports federations, all of whom have the same voting power, no matter their size or Olympic record.
Many have expressed gratitude for Coates's past generosity and all will be mindful of his clout in the global politics of sport.
($1 = 1.3497 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)