From a door boy at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to one of the most influential administrators in Australia’s Commonwealth Games history, Sam Coffa’s devotion to Australian sport has been second-to-none.
As a competitor, coach, official and administrator, Salvatore ‘Sam’ Coffa’s positive impact on the Commonwealth Games movement and weightlifting will be commended with induction as a General Member into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame at the 34th Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 11th October 2018.
General Membership of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame was established to recognise those who have shown excellence and outstanding achievements in roles supportive to Australian sport, such as administration, coaching/training, media or science.
“I’m a little bit overwhelmed,” Coffa said of his induction.
“It is good recognition and I appreciate it very much. There’s great satisfaction not just for myself but for my family too.”
Across half a century of service, Coffa has held almost every leadership or administrative-level position within his chosen sport of weightlifting, and at Commonwealth Games Australia – including his role as president for more than 20 years. From the time he was elected president of CGA, Coffa became the driving force behind Australia’s successful bids for the 2006 and 2018 Games, serving as deputy chair of both organising committees.
Migrating from Italy to Melbourne as a 15-year-old, Coffa can’t remember a time he didn’t love sport and have dreams to compete at the highest level. In 1956, a wide-eyed Coffa was working as a bespoke surgical boot maker in Hawthorn’s Glenferrie road, and had started weightlifting for recreation and fitness purposes.
“My shop was only two minutes away by bike to where the training hall was for the Olympic weightlifting,” Coffa said.
“I used to go there every day. Every couple of hours I would go out there to watch the greats – like the Americans and the Russians. The bloke in charge told me I’m making a bloody nuisance, so he told me to stay by the door and open it as people come in. He told that if I did a good job they’d have me as a doorman at the Olympic venue, the Royal Exhibition Building. I was thrilled.”
“So, in 1956 I became the doorkeeper at the Olympic Games and in 2018 I was Vice President of the International Weightlifting Foundation. That’s the sort of quantum leap that can only happen in countries like Australia.”
Around that time, Coffa initiated a weightlifting club out of the Hawthorn Citizens’ Youth Club – formally the Hawthorn Boys Club. As a 16-year-old Coffa began lobbying hard to change the club’s name from ‘Boys’ to ‘Youth’ to allow girls to also become members.
Council initially objected to the change of name, but on Coffa’s insistence and after five years of arguing on behalf of the movement– the title was changed, and local girls were afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
As the club grew, Coffa proved himself an excellent competitor. In 1959, he won the first of his 11 consecutive Victorian titles in his weight division and went on to be the Australian champion six times.
Coffa’s first taste of the Commonwealth Games came when he was selected to compete in Perth at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. He was hopeful for a medal but finished 6th.
In 1964 he was selected to wear the green and gold at the Tokyo Olympics, which he describes as the “proudest moment” of his life.
“I was marching behind the flagbearer in the Opening Ceremony and I had tears coming out of my eyes. We were not in the race for medals or anything, we finished second last. But just to compete at the Olympics was my dream. It gave me the greatest thrill of my life.”
Turning his attention to where he felt he could have the greatest impact, Coffa explored coaching, officiating and administration duties, wanting to “give back to the sport” which had given him so much.
A driving force behind both the 2006 Melbourne and 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Coffa’s ability to galvanise support and lead strong Games delivery partnerships, along with his strong focus on putting athletes first, ensured that Australia will always be recognised as hospitable and highly competent Games hosts.
The CGA had originally planned for Melbourne to host the Games in 2002, with the then-Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, a key ally to the vision.
“I knocked on Jeff’s door and he constituted the Games taskforce of which I was a part of. We finished the case for 2002, sent off the report and we were positive we wanted to bid. In the intervening period, Sydney were awarded the Olympic Games and Jeff thought that it probably would’ve been a little bit too soon together. I agreed, and of course I was very disappointed. Sydney 2000 went on, the Liberal party won the next state election, and then we thought, why not 2006? We’ve already done the work. That’s how it came around.”
A decade later, Coffa again was the centre of a Games bid, the first to be held in a regional capital of Australia.
“I was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008,” Coffa recalled.
“We had just come back from the Opening Ceremony, got to the hotel and I received a call from the then-premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh. She said she had been inspired and had a wonderful place in mind for the next Commonwealth Games – the Gold Coast. I told her that we just had the Games in 2006, if I go out waving the flag on behalf of Australia I’ll be laughed at. I said we’ll need to wait but it’s not a bad idea.”
“I took it to the board, and there was a bit of resistance at first. But I wasn’t ready to shut the door on it just yet. I told Anna, ‘2018 looks good’.”
In 2011, New Zealand were interested in putting forward an Auckland bid, but pulled out, meaning the Gold Coast would have to beat Nigeria’s Abuja or Sri Lanka’s Hambantota for the bid. Abuja had finished runners-up for the 2014 Games but missed the deadline for 2018 expressions of interest.
The Gold Coast beat Hambantota and the rest is history, with the Gold Coast staging a spectacular Games, the first in a regional city, re-defining what’s possible in the Games hosting model.
“I took part in the Games’ Opening Ceremony and I was incredibly proud and emotional at the time.”
The benefits derived by the Games movement and the broader community due to his vision and leadership cannot be overstated. Through the sale of its marketing rights to the Victorian and Queensland State Governments the CGA (and its Foundation), established a legacy fund valued at more than $60m, with distributions of more than $44m to member sports and their athletes, with more than $10m of that going to junior athletes under his presidency.
In weightlifting, Coffa served as president of the Australian Weightlifting Federation from 1983 to 2007, vice-president of the International Weightlifting Federation from 1992 to 2017 and president of the Commonwealth Weightlifting Federation from 1990 to 1994.
As he was all those years ago at the Hawthorn Citizens Youth Club, Coffa was a champion of gender parity throughout his years in leadership positions. As chairman of the IWF Women’s Commission, he was instrumental in gaining approval for the introduction of women’s events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He was a driving force behind the introduction of an equal number of men’s and women’s categories in world, Olympic and Commonwealth competition and in making it easier for women to become involved as technical officials.
“I really pushed hard for gender equality in everything we did,” Coffa said.
“I always pushed for 50%. On the Gold Coast we had 50% medals to women which was contrary to international rules, but we did it and I was so proud.”
Other inclusivity initiatives include backing changes to apparel regulations allowing more women of Islamic faith to compete internationally. He has been widely regarded as the technical doyen of international weightlifting, continually improving the sport with many innovations, including the implementation of the 1kg rule and removal of the bodyweight advantage rule which revolutionised the presentation of weightlifting competitions around the globe, improving the spectator experience.
A former Mayor of Hawthorn, Coffa says he was able to survive the turbulent world of sports administration through persistence and his ability to adapt.
“If you don’t persevere you don’t succeed,” Coffa said.
“I never like to put a question to the vote, I always try to reach a consensus – You need the support of everyone sitting around the table.”
“I also think I’m very good at adapting to change. The secret is an open mind, I say the mind is like a parachute – it works better when its open.”
It’s these qualities and his vast body of work that has ensured Coffa be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame according to Chairman John Bertrand AO.
“Sam is the doyen of Commonwealth Games in this country,” Bertrand said.
“Under his leadership, Australia hosted two home games and he set up financial independence for the movement going into the future with the establishment of a $60 million-dollar foundation.”
A small man with a big heart, Coffa’s mighty wisdom, experience and enthusiasm has influenced the Commonwealth Games and international weightlifting immensely and ensured that Australia retains our powerful reputation in hosting world-class Games that lift well beyond our weight.
Sam Coffa AM will be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s “Night of Nights” – the sold out 34th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 11th October at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne.
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.
2018 will mark the 34th edition of this event, with eight Australian sporting icons, from on and off the field, to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
In addition, Richie Benaud will be elevated to Legend status, becoming the 40th official Legend of Australian Sport.