Even before the starter’s gun fires, Fiona De Jong has run a years-long marathon to prepare the Aussies for the Olympic Games. By Hannah Flannery
Fiona De Jong is not an Olympian, coach or trainer, but much of the responsibility for Australia’s performance at the London Olympic Games will be on her shoulders.
Director of Sport for the Australian Olympic Committee, De Jong has the enormous task of managing the delivery of the Australian Olympic delegation to the Games.
“We have set the ambition of finishing in the top five in the overall medal tally, which is going to be tougher than ever. But it is do-able,” she says.
De Jong is “cautiously optimistic” the Australian team will reach this goal.
The challenge De Jong faces in London will be to swiftly react to whatever curveball is thrown. And if the Beijing Games are anything to go by, the trickiest curveballs will be unexpected.
“Some of the issues we will face in London just can’t be anticipated,” De Jong says.
In preparation for the Beijing Olympics, De Jong and her team spent three months plotting room configurations to work out where to place athletes.
When the first wave of Australians arrived in Beijing, they discovered the floor plans were not true to form and so an entire reconfiguration had to be drafted over three days.
“This time, I’ve travelled to London to check out the allotments,” she says.
“It’s certainly a big job, but I’ve had four years to get it all together. Come Games time, it’s about executing a good plan.”
A former lawyer, De Jong was appointed to the AOC in 2004 and is responsible for sending teams to the Youth Olympics as well as the Summer and Winter Games.
De Jong admits while she has access to a number of contractors, the months before the Summer Olympics are the most demanding part of the job.
“The summer team is 10 times the number of a winter team,” she says.
The Australian delegation of athletes, coaches, officials and management staff in London will be nearly 800. Half will be athletes.
De Jong will make sure the Australian delegation arrives safely, buses arrive on time at the airport, team uniforms fit, Olympic village passes are distributed and athletes, coaches and officials know precisely where they need to be and when.
Before her appointment to the AOC, De Jong worked for international legal firm Blake Dawson Waldron.
“The skillset I acquired as a lawyer is particularly useful in my role, in that I spend a lot of time drafting selection criteria by which athletes are selected,” she says.
“Being familiar with criteria requirements has been important in drafting those documents.”
While De Jong has been responsible for managing team logistics, this year she has been most consumed by the athlete selection process. Selection disputes are not uncommon in Australia’s sporting history and De Jong says it puts immense pressure on other athletes whose selection comes under question as a result.
“In the past, I’ve found myself in Cairns at the Court of Arbitration for Sport frequently on the eve of the Games, still working out if athletes are going to be able to attend or not,” she says.
But with her expertise in selection policy, De Jong is well placed to fight for athletes if their claims are covered by their national sporting organisation’s policy.
A controversial Olympic selection appeal played out during April this year, when canoe sprint paddler Joel Simpson appealed against his non-selection in the seven-man team. Simpson lost out to one of Australia’s best, Murray Stewart, 2-1 in three qualification races for the K1 200m position.
Simpson complained that during the qualification series’ first race, weeds on the Penrith Lakes course unfairly disadvantaged him.
The matter, which also posed threats to Olympic champion Ken Wallace and two other pre-selected paddlers for the London Games, went before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The court later dismissed Simpson’s claim, but De Jong says the complaint was the beginning of a string of complaints (in other sports) to emerge before the Games.
“In circumstances where a dispute occurs between Australian athletes, it is our responsibility to make sure the process within the national sporting body is fair, open and transparent.”
When a qualification dispute happens at International Olympic Committee level (against the international federation), De Jong steps in to fight for the rights of the athletes.
“I know what their rights are and I know the best way to have them be represented and achieve what I think are the best outcomes,” she says.
Managing the accommodation, uniforms, accreditation and allocations in the Olympic Village is the practical part of De Jong’s role, “but fighting for an Australian athlete’s place at an Olympics is certainly the sweet spot”.
Planning for hiccups
The Olympic Village in London will be hectic and complications unavoidable.
“There are always going to be problems and best-laid plans will come unstuck. We know planes will be delayed, buses won’t turn up and athletes will get injured. It is about being able to handle those problems as they arise,” she says.
The AOC planning committee starts scenario-planning two years ahead to simulate disastrous situations so staff know how to react. De Jong’s approach to dealing with obstacles is largely based on three elements. “One being common sense, two is composure and three is trust in experience.”
When it comes to managing complications that can be anticipated, De Jong says it is essential she knows who is available to help.
“We can plan for complications like uniforming issues, when athletes are concerned about the way their competition kit fits. At that point, we work with tailors to make sure it is right.
“Then we’ll have accommodation issues, with athletes snoring and keeping roommates awake.”
In the case of a doping offence, that would be covered by the AOC’s bylaws and anti-doping procedures.
“The important thing is to react quickly to avoid issues getting out of control.”
Games time management
A typical day during the Games is 18 to 20 hours for De Jong. At 6.45 each morning, De Jong will run a meeting with each of the 34 sporting section managers.
“This format makes the reporting structure really clear and [it’s] possible to address problems as they arise.”
Born in Brisbane, De Jong is an accomplished triathlete, having represented Australia in four age group Triathlon World Championships between 1994 and 1997.
“I’m naturally highly self-motivated,” she says. “I’ve always set my own goals and have been motivated to achieve them.”