Sport

She may not have played much sport as a kid, but Josephine Sukkar has always been a keen sideline supporter. Now the Sydney businesswoman has jumped in the ring as the first female chair of the Australian Sports Commission. By Kieran Pender.

Australian Sports Commission chair Josephine Sukkar

Josephine Sukkar (second from right) at the season launch of the 2019 University Sevens Series.
Credit: Buildcorp

The symbolic significance of her recent appointment as chair of the Australian Sports Commission is not lost on Josephine Sukkar. The co-founder of construction company Buildcorp has become the first woman to preside over the ASC since it was established by the Hawke government in 1984. At a time when great strides are being made towards gender equality in sport, the appointment of Sukkar to lead the country’s peak sports agency – with its 500 staff and a $400 million yearly budget – is momentous.

“Visibility is important,” Sukkar tells The Saturday Paper. “For us to turn on the television and watch women playing cricket or football, that’s business as usual for young people growing up today. But even just 10 years ago it would have been unusual. Young girls can now see women occupying boardroom roles, chief executive roles.

“My parents were born in Lebanon,” Sukkar continues. “So for a woman of my heritage, it is even more unusual – particularly within sport. But socially we are seeing a strong tide for greater inclusion. My role will speak to that.”

Sukkar – now arguably the most influential person in Australian sport – has a plateful of issues to address in her new role. The ASC runs Sport Australia, which oversees sports funding and governance, and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which focuses on high performance. Sport Australia’s apolitical image has been damaged by last year’s “sports rorts” affair involving then minister Bridget McKenzie, while Covid-19 and the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have caused havoc for Australian sports. In happier news, the International Olympic Committee recently recommended Brisbane as the preferred host city for the 2032 Olympics. “I’ve been busy,” says Sukkar of her first few weeks as chair. “But good busy, happy busy.”

Her first task, she says, is understanding public expectations. “I want to get my head around exactly what it is taxpayers expect us to be doing in these roles,” she explains. “I want to understand who is in what lane – the AIS, Sport Australia, the Australian Olympic Committee, all the national sporting bodies. Of course the AOC is independent. But I want to understand what all the organisations do, and then every decision we make on behalf of the taxpayers should be going exactly where they would expect that money to go.”

Taxpayer dollars loom large in any conversation about Australian sport. The federal government pours hundreds of millions of dollars into elite and participation sport each year. Many sports say they need more; high-performance funding has not kept pace with inflation for almost two decades. While Sukkar says she has not formed a professional position, having not even had an ASC board meeting yet, her “personal view” is that going to the government cap in hand is not the answer.

“Post-Covid, I don’t believe the government can pay for everything,” she says. “They will of course continue to fund a lot of the things they do but, equally, quite sensibly they will be asking whether particular sports can become self-sustaining and attract corporate partners and build in efficiencies. It’s not just in sport – everywhere we are having to reimagine how we operate. If our default position is always that the government has to pay more, then we will probably end up a bit disappointed.”

A perennial source of division in the sports funding debate is the appropriate spread of money between high-performance and participation. Sukkar wants to move beyond a binary approach. “We need to get that balance right,” she says. “But it is weird to me we don’t see sport as one continual pipeline. Grassroots participation is the base of the pyramid – the seven- and eight-year-olds learning equestrian or AFL or athletics, that is the beginning of the pathway to elite sport.” Sukkar detours to highlight the public health benefits of sport, before continuing: “If we don’t have a very big funnel at the bottom of that base, then probability says we are narrowing the likelihood of us developing elite athletes.”

The businesswoman says she believes Covid-19 offers Australian sport an opportunity to reassess and rebuild. “There are two types of people: those who will be paralysed by the Covid, and those who will see opportunity. When we are backed into a corner, how do we respond? Covid is another point in our lives where we are being asked to step up. How are we going to move forward through Covid and post-Covid?”

 

Sukkar, 57, grew up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, in a household where sport was central. “I played very little sport growing up,” she says. “But my father was sports mad. We were three little girls, but at my house there was always cricket, tennis, rugby league or rugby union on in the background.” Sukkar’s father, Buddy Macdessi, was an ardent Cronulla Sharks fan. “He would take us to rugby league matches,” she says, “so we became Sharks supporters.”

When Sukkar first met her future husband, Tony, he was playing first-grade rugby union for Sydney University. The two later co-founded Buildcorp, which now has half a billion dollars in annual turnover. As Buildcorp grew, it became a major sponsor of rugby union.

“I enjoy sport,” says Sukkar. “I am a sports supporter. I am also a businesswoman who has been involved in sporting organisations, and particularly rugby, to bring a business lens to how we govern and how we can attract financial partners. I like to think I bring a few perspectives; I have been a mother on the sidelines, a wife on the sidelines, a sponsor and an advocate.”

In addition to her commercial acumen, Sukkar brings high-profile decision-making experience to the ASC. She has served as a director of Opera Australia, a trustee of the Australian Museum and on a University of Melbourne advisory board. Most prominently, Sukkar has been president of Australian Women’s Rugby since 2015, overseeing a period of rapid growth and high-performance achievement. “I am very proud of what we achieved in women’s rugby,” she says. “We wanted to ensure there were pathways created for everyone, not just men.”

Sukkar’s involvement in rugby union has helped her develop constructive relationships at the AOC, a key player in the Australian sporting landscape. The relationship between the AOC and ASC has been fraught for some time, following a bitter rift between Sukkar’s predecessor John Wylie and AOC president John Coates (the latter has publicly admitted to calling the former a “cunt”).

“I know John Coates and [AOC chief executive] Matt Carroll well,” says Sukkar. “We all live in Sydney, we are from the business community. It was John Coates, who, together with John O’Neill when he was running Australian Rugby Union, worked very hard to ensure that Rugby Sevens ended up back on the Olympic program. Because of their push, our women had the opportunity to win the very first gold medal in rugby, at the Rio Olympics. If it wasn’t for John Coates’s involvement, there was no way we would have had that opportunity, which really changed the landscape for women in rugby.”

In addition to mending fences, Sukkar has one major aspiration for her three-year term: building towards the 2032 Olympics. “It is helpful to have something to visualise,” she says. “A beacon on the hill, where are we going, what are we aiming for. In my mind, that is the 2032 Brisbane Olympics – here we are preparing a pipeline of athletes to be able to compete locally where we have the best chance of winning medals.”

If, as looks increasingly certain, the Brisbane bid succeeds, it would only underscore the family impetus for Sukkar’s work in sport. “I remember the 2000 Olympics in Sydney,” she says. “My father put his hand up to be a volunteer doctor, because they were looking for doctors to help smaller nations. He loved being part of that sporting environment – he spoke about the privilege it was to volunteer his time. He has been gone 15 years, but when I go out to Homebush with his grandchildren, we visit the totem poles they have built inscribed with the names of every volunteer.”

Sukkar says she still has the Sydney 2000 uniform provided to Games volunteers. “It wasn’t very fashionable,” she laughs. “But he loved it and cherished it. After he passed, that was what I wanted to keep.” Having made history as the first woman to lead the ASC, Sukkar says she is thankful to her father for imbuing her with a passion for sport. “I find myself here in the halo of my father’s love for sport and all that it entailed,” she says. “I’m proud to be involved.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Sukkar punch".

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Kieran Pender is an Australian writer and lawyer, and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University college of law.