Athletics: Kiwi lawyer to sort IAAF structure

By Steve Landells

Nick Willis competes in the Men's 1500 metres final at the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty Images
Nick Willis competes in the Men's 1500 metres final at the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty Images

Top Kiwi sports lawyer Maria Clarke is leading a high powered team of lawyers and governance experts to change the governance structure of the IAAF. Steve Landells speaks to the New Zealander about her critical role and how she hopes the proposals will help change the sport for future generations.

Maria Clarke is never one to "shy away from a challenge," which is a good job because as chair of the IAAF Governance Structure Reform Working Group she and her team have been mandated to overhaul the governance structure of an organisation in crisis.

Over the past 12 months the Monaco-based International Association of Athletics Federation has been dealing with allegations of corruption, mismanagement and a welter of doping related issues suffered under its previous leadership.

In order to address the myriad of challenges facing the organisation, President Lord Sebastian Coe - who was elected into his current role 12 months ago - has demanded a wide scale reform of the IAAF including structural review of the composition and powers of the IAAF Council, Executive Board and President, along with an independent integrity and anti-doping unit and Disciplinary Tribunal to modernise the IAAF's governance structure, disciplinary processes and practices.

Maria and her 10-strong working group started work on the ambitious project in February 2016 and it is hoped the final proposals will be sent to the 200+ member federations in September for their approval as part of a Special Congress in December. It is no straight-forward task as Maria is working around the clock with her international team to fulfil the mandate.

"Our group is proposing a new constitution and a whole restructure of the IAAF governance framework with a change to roles and responsibilities, including the President's powers and the Council powers; an increase in the athletes' voice, greater diversity and a new independent integrity and anti-doping unit," says Maria, the principal of her Auckland-based sports law firm. "No other international sports organisation, to my knowledge, has carried out fundamental changes as we are proposing. We are talking wholesale reform".

"Hopefully we can get the proposals across the line and reach a position where the sport regains its place as the leading international sport organisation, which allows the sport to grow and prosper at all levels."

The work may be "full-on" and the pressure intense but Maria insists she is "honoured" to be playing a key role on the working group.

Born and raised in the Hawkes Bay, sport was a big part of Maria's life for as long as she can remember. A representative level netball and tennis player she says her parents - who both taught and coached sport - instilled in her the core values which have held true throughout her professional and personal life.

"They were both quite driven around sports participation and sharing that passion," insists Maria, 49, a mum of two teenage boys.

Graduating with law and arts degrees (in honours) from Otago University it was her good fortune that in her first law position with Brandon Brookfield/Simpson Grierson in Wellington she met David Howman, the recently departed Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who worked at the practice.

David asked Maria - who then specialised in family law - to help out with some Wellington and national based sports organisations on constitutional matters and so her tentative connection with sports law began.

"There was no real concept of sports law back then. The sports organisations we acted for, we did so on any an honorary basis and they were not an actively marketed area of the firm's practice," she explains. "There was a lot of cynicism back then towards sport law".

It was only following the professionalisation of rugby in the early-1990s that sports law began to gain traction in New Zealand and internationally with cases in sport being considered by the courts. Maria later moved into employment law but still retained her sporting connections working closely with the clients like, the Hillary Commission - the forerunner of Sport NZ - and Netball NZ.

In 1998 she received a call from an Australian sports law colleague, Ian Fullagar, who she had met through the relatively newly formed, Australia and New Zealand Sports Law Association (ANZSLA). He offered Maria an opportunity to work for the special sports law practice he had established in Melbourne in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. At that time it was the only specialist sports law firm in Oceania.

Attracted to the thought, Maria and her now husband, Andrew, relocated to the other side of the Tasman for a few years in the late-1990s - gaining a wealth of experience in a raft of sports law issues from doping, sports governance, selection issues and policy development.

In late 2000 she gave birth to her first child, Will, and shortly afterwards returned to Auckland to set up her own sports law firm in Auckland.

"It made sense for me to give it a go," she explains of specialising in an area of law which had undergo an "explosion" of interest in the mid to late 90s. "I really enjoyed working in sport because of the passion of the people involved and the fact it was one way I could contribute to ensuring sport is accessible to everyday people and elite athletes alike."

Quickly building up a reputation as a market leader in her field, she worked closely with a whole range of sports organisations including Athletics NZ and the New Zealand Olympic Committee. In the space of a few years she had acted for nearly every national sports organisation in New Zealand and some of the country's top athletes such as double Olympian rowers, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, Olympic and World Champion shot putter, Valerie Adams, and equestrian, Jock Paget.

Ten years ago she received a call to say the IAAF required a female lawyer to join the IAAF Juridical Commission (now known as the IAAF Legal Commission) and would she be interested in taking on the role. Initially dismissive of the prospect of simply filling the quota of two women on the commission on gender grounds, it was only after a chat with husband and colleagues and the opportunity to "change things from the inside" did she decide to accept the challenge.

Meeting twice a year in a voluntary capacity she has contributed to the Commission by re-writing a code of ethics for the ethics commission, re-writing elements of the IAAF constitution and drafting a model constitution for National Federations of the IAAF. She has relished the role.

Such is Maria's outstanding reputation within the organisation and after serving two previous terms as a member of the IAAF Legal Commission, IAAF President Coe invited her to become chair - of what is essentially an advisory body to the IAAF Council for reviewing changes to the rules, reviewing cases that have gone before CAS and looking into legal trends across the sport.

Given her standing within the sport it was no huge surprise she was also made chair of the IAAF Governance Structure Reform Working Group which began work in February. Taking up a significant percent of her current work capacity, Maria's multinational working group has met face-to-face on five occasions in Europe and Rio and organised numerous teleconferences and email exchanges. There is little doubt to push through proposals in less than a year has its challenges including convincing over 200 Member Federations of its merits, when the proposal will affect individuals own positions within the IAAF and their Member organisations. Maria and her team need to strike a delicate balance and recognise the cultural and global differences to governance concepts.

"At its core we need to take the organisation to a new place with internationally accepted governance foundations and good governance practice," she explains. "But we also have to propose something that is politically acceptable because at the end of the day it is the delegates of the 215 Member federation who will decide whether or not to accept the changes. We need to design a model that is acceptable, but which still addresses the fundamental changes required to take the IAAF into a new era. It has taken foresight and courage from the IAAF Council to debate and agree on the proposals. The decision at the first Council meeting during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was unanimous so the Working Group's proposal will go to a Special Congress in December where Member Federations will vote to adopt the package that sets out a new structure to ensure the IAAF can take itself forward into a new era for the sport.

Maria has just spent 15 days in Rio meeting with her team, presenting the final proposals to the IAAF Council and talking to a whole host of the member federation delegates.

She says she been impressed by Coe's unwavering support throughout the process describing him as a "visionary" and insists he is the right man to move the sport forward.

"I believe Seb 's focus is on the health, wellbeing and future of the sport and not about what personal roles he might get in the future," she insists. "For him to consistently advocate for the sport whilst facing the intense scrutiny and commentary he has faced over the last 12 months or so, is testament to his drive and energy for the sport and its athletes. His leadership and support on the reform project reflects his broader vision for the sport as a whole. He is happy to let us get on with the detail, but he is clear on the bigger picture we need to achieve and is very engaged on specific issues as they arise. For such substantial changes, you generally only get one chance at it, and this is our chance, and we want to succeed."

The work does not stop in December. The Working Group is likely to continue its work to ensure the reforms are properly implemented over the two phased implementation in 2017 and 2019. This new scope of work will be signed off at the second Council meeting at the end of the Games.

Proud of the work the team has accomplished in "a short space of time" she and her fellow Working Group members has been encouraged by the support the proposals have so far received, but she is also realistic.

"I am confident, but I know from all my previous work in sports governance, it can sometimes come down to one or two people's view on one or two points that could derail the proposals," she says. "But we are not cherry picking anything, the idea is that we put the whole package to vote. For the sport of athletics to become a leading sport, with real currency with future generations, the changes are essential."

So should the Kiwi lawyer manage to implement the IAAF reform plans, where would this rank in her career accomplishments?

"It would be right up there," she says. It would be "like winning a gold medal' as a sports lawyer. I have been working in sports law for a long time now so to be involved in something so impactful on sport would be something pretty special. However, she is quick to point out that it would not be her gold medal, as there are so many people doing a huge amount day and night, not the least Seb and his Council's leadership but also the athletes who make the sport what it is on a day to day basis. What really drives me is the preservation and growth of sport for the next generation."

- NZ Herald

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