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Remembering Ron Clarke: Leisure industry innovator

Remembering Ron Clarke: Leisure industry innovator
June 18, 2015

Many tributes have been paid to Ron Clarke, who died yesterday, with almost all focusing on his remarkable career as an elite runner and Olympian, and his more recent role as Gold Coast City Council Mayor.

As a runner, Ron Clarke’s career was legendary.

He was the finest middle distance runner of his generation, the final torch bearer at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the holder of every world record from two to ten miles between 1968 and 1972. Later he carried the Olympic torch at the MCG during the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch relay.

His time as Gold Coast Mayor, from 2004 to 2012, was one of achievement, not least as it was during Clarke’s time as Mayor that the Gold Coast began its successful bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

However, in the time between the end of his athletic career and the start of political life, Clarke developed a significant career in sports retailing, fitness and sport facility management and nature-based tourism, impacting the leisure industry that we know today.

Clarke was also a critic of corruption within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prior to Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bribery scandal of the late 1990s, at a time when the IOC was viewed in many quarters in the way in which world football governing body FIFA is viewed today.

His 1999 book, Fixing the Olympics predicted many of the Olympic scandals, questioning what IOC does with its massive Olympic Games revenues.

While critical of the IOC, he remained a passionate fan of the Olympic Games and their ideals, although in an interview with Australasian Leisure Management in 2000, he conceded that his chance of being a becoming a member of the IOC had gone “a long time ago, as I’ve been pretty critical for a while.”

He added “but with all the politics apart, the Games are something very, very special.”

During and after his athletic career, Ron, a trained accountant, enjoyed a successful career in business, establishing first adidas then Nike in Australia before starting Lifestyle fitness clubs here in Australia and moving to the UK in 1983 to manage Cannon’s fitness clubs in London.

In the mid 1990s he returned to Australia as Chief Executive of Interpacific Resorts, responsible for the Couran Cove Resort on South Stradbrooke Island on the Gold Coast and the recently completed Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre. Opened in 1998, Couran Cove Resort was, and remains, an innovative nature-based resort, mixing access, accommodation, educational programs, and a major sports compound within a fragile ecosystem.

Opened just prior to the Sydney Olympics, the Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre was another first – a privately funded world class sporting centre, that also serves as a membership-based community facility.

The $30 million Sports Super Centre offers accommodation for up to 300 in nine lodges along with international standard athletics facilities; a clubhouse with change rooms, spa and sauna facilities; swimming pools and fitness centre; a conference centre with lecture theatre, meeting rooms, library, bar/foyer and business services; a café; child care centre and activity centre; sports medicine, sports science and sports rehabilitation rooms; and a shop.

Australasian Leisure Management’s 2000 interview with Ron Clarke follows:

Australasian Leisure Management: “With the Olympics, again lighting the cauldron at the MCG during the Olympic torch relay and opening the Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre, you have had a very busy few months. What have been the highlights?”

Ron Clarke: “Among all this, the Paralympians using our facility for training was the highlight. Seeing the courage of these athletes every day truly helps sort out your priorities.”

ALM: “How pleased are you with what you have created with the Sports Super Centre?”

RC: Sometimes when you plan a business, the realisation isn’t always as good as you plan. But here, as with the Couran Cove resort, what we have built is so much better than what we planned. Above all, realising what the facility offers the local community is very satisfying.”

ALM: “Going back to the start of the development, with investors generally sceptical about sport and leisure developments, how did you convince the owners of Interpacific Resorts to become involved in the development of the Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre?

RC: “Because of the success of the mix of facilities at Couran Cove Resort not only among visitors but for sporting teams, Interpacific Resorts saw the potential of developing team accommodation around a sporting facility. Between the Resort and the Centre, we now have the potential to not only host teams with different levels of accommodation, from ‘ski lodges’ to first class villas, but a venue that can host major events and competitions.”

ALM: “So, unlike many others, you haven’t found it difficult to find investment in sport and leisure?”

RC: “We have been fortunate in that respect, but having developed Lifestyle clubs here and two Cannon’s clubs in London (one in the city and one at Covent Garden), which numbered among the most successful private clubs in the world, a lot of people knew what we could do with clubs.”

ALM: “Cannon’s is quite a success story?”

RC: “We took the two Cannon’s clubs to a total of 11,000 members, with 22,000 visits a week - a phenomenal average of over two visits per member per week – with us often attracting 1,000 people into a club at lunch time! (we had five gates with the swipe guards going flat out!). Of course the Australian market is very different, with more clubs per head of population, and that population prepared to travel to go to clubs (people here are much more mobile than are in London) and we don’t expect the Sports Super Centre to attract the same numbers. In addition, we are offering a different facility with accommodation and certainly don’t expect the running tracks and the swimming pool to make money.”

ALM: “Are you concerned that the swimming pool will not be a source of profit?”

RC: “We are leasing out the swimming pool’s management to an operator who will run a swim school and we’ll use it for swim camps and those sorts of things. Meanwhile club members still have a pool they can use, our international teams will be able to use it, as well as local triathletes.”

ALM: “Overall though, your biggest market will be from memberships of the Sports Super Centre among local people?”

RC: “Local people and local corporates will certainly be our biggest market, but our biggest money spinner will be providing accommodation to teams, schools, sporting associations and others – were we are booked out for many months.

ALM: “How will memberships be packaged?”

RC: “Members will be able to choose a range of packages, from full membership with access to the entire centre along with stand-alone memberships for the gym, swimming or tennis.

“All membership will also based on monthly terms. I never have had long term memberships in my clubs with one year being the longest term. So members can buy 12 month memberships, and the 12 month membership is virtually the monthly membership multiplied by ten instead of by 12. So members can pay $50 a month, and it’ll cost $600 in a year, or $500 in advance. We also have a concession membership which is half that, for retirees and mothers with young families in the area, so anyone who comes after 10 am in the morning and leaves before 5pm, can join for half price.

ALM: “What kind of membership numbers do you foresee?”

RC: “We are looking at about 2,000 members, so its very different to Cannon’s”

ALM: “Growing up I always think of you as a long distance runner, probably the most famous Australian sportsperson in the UK during the 1960s. Between running and an accountancy career how did you get this involvement in leisure and fitness business?”

RC: “I started in accountancy, and in fact I stopped running prior to the 1956 games, because I’d just qualified as an accountant and the hardest part of accounting after getting your qualifications is the first few years of your job. It wasn’t until just before the 1960 Olympics that I started to run seriously again, jogging around the Melbourne’s Caulfield Racecourse each night after work. In the end I broke a world record and won a silver medal at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth. Subsequently I got to meet Horst Dassler, son of the adidas founder, who was searching for an Australian distributor. As a result I got together some money and some backers and started adidas in Australia in 1965. My brother, Jack, was captain of the Essendon team that won the premiership that year, and with him wearing the three-striped boots we helped get the adidas name known.

“adidas also gave me a chance to travel, as my world record brought me invitations to compete at athletics meetings in Europe and I could use those trips to save the firm some money and do business at the same time. Without linking my sport and my business I wouldn’t have been able to compete.

“We built adidas up very quickly and sold out to Dunlop, then in the early 1970s I started Nike in Australia. At the same time, because Nike didn’t have any clothing range, I kept the Lacrosse Sportiffs brand that adidas had developed. Both soon became too big too quickly for us, and as I didn’t have the ability to raise finance without selling my soul, I sold both businesses and started Lifestyle.”

ALM: “So why did you focus on fitness?”

RC: “I had always been keen on fitness, from when my brother and I used to train for football – although then it wasn’t called training! To stop getting stale we went to a weight lifting gym in Melbourne and I got to see how lucrative a well run gym could be.”

ALM: “As a former Olympic athlete, you have some firm views on the management of the Olympics?”

RC: “In my book Fixing the Olympics I predicted many of the pre-Olympic scandals, but my main thoughts on the Olympics are that they are fantastic, that they are too big, and that there’s too much money involved. My objection is not too the monies involved but the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) get too big a cut out of it, and therefore they have this arrangement where they screw the public and support the sponsors, so the sponsors get the best deal for tickets, and they pay them a lot of money. What do IOC do with the money? “They treat themselves very well, when all the IOC does is decide where the games are held every four years - there is no other function in life for them, because the local organisation committee organises the games, and the international sporting associations operate the games.

“The IOC are normally there to see the games run well I suppose, and to flaunt themselves around the world and have these conferences every two or three months about where to go next. But I just think the money should not be concentrated in their hands, especially as they are an undemocratic organisation. IOC members should be elected, with every National Olympic Committee represented. I do agree that a lot of organisations suffer when there are too many people involved but at the same time I’m not sure I’ll ever see a democratically elected IOC.”

ALM: “So you’ve blown your chances of ever joining the IOC?”

RC: “A long time ago, as I’ve been pretty critical for a while. But as I’ve said, with all the politics apart, the games are something very, very special.”

Today the Couran Cove Resort is operated by the Ramada Group while the Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre is operated by Gold Coast City Council.

Images (from top): Ron Clarke at the time of the opening of the Couran Cove Resort; at the 1956 Olympics; the Couran Cove Resort and the Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre.

17th June 2015 - VALE: RON CLARKE, OLYMPIAN AND LEISURE INDUSTRY INNOVATOR

10th June 2013 - INDUSTRY FIGURES RECOGNISED IN QUEEN’S BIRTHDAY HONOURS

9th April 2011 - QUEENSLAND LEADERS TO LODGE COMMONWEALTH GAMES BID


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