After leading the reform of an athletics world in turmoil, Auckland lawyer Maria Clarke is now in demand to help sports bodies around the world. Sarah Cowley-Ross reports. 

A little over two years ago, Kiwi sports lawyer Maria Clarke was asked by British running legend Sebastian Coe to begin the complex task of cleaning up world athletics.

At the start of 2016, the International Associations of Athletic Federations (IAAF) was in crisis.

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) had released a damming report on the IAAF, outlining widespread corruption and violation of the laws which govern the sport.

Senegalese businessman Lamine Diack, the former president of the IAAF, had been found guilty of bribing athletes, money laundering and allowing the corruption of the organisation.

Clarke was tasked by Lord Coe, the new IAAF president, to start the clean-up, as chair of the body’s working group for governance and integrity reform.

“It’s going to take years for the sport to recover from what’s happened and the abuse of trust,” Clarke admits, two years on.

Years of deceit starting at the top had created a shambolic governance structure and a loss of integrity both within and outside the IAAF. The working group came up with a new governance structure for the sport – including a whole new constitution – and Clarke remains chair of the group implementing the widespread reform.

“I might not be delivering on the ground because that’s not my skillset,” she says. “But by helping create governance structure, everyone from the ground up will benefit from the opportunity to participate.

“I love watching elite sport, but if we don’t have strong governance in organisations like the IAAF and Athletics New Zealand, we won’t have little Johnny running round places like the Devonport Domain learning how to run, and all the good things that come with playing sport.”

Clarke was handed the reins of the clean-up on the back of a long and successful career as a sports lawyer in New Zealand.

Now the Auckland-based Clarke, who balances her work with bringing up two teenage boys, is in demand around the globe to help international sports organisations achieve ‘best practice in sports governance’.

This year she was appointed as the independent chair of the World Sailing governance commission, and the vice-chair of the International Paralympic Committee’s working group for governance review.

She also has volunteer roles with the Association of National Olympic Committees in their legal commission, and sits on the International Olympic Committee’s marketing commission.

Closer to home, she is on the integrity commission for the New Zealand Olympic Committee. It’s fair to say she’s not sitting around twiddling her thumbs.

She’s a woman on a mission to create strong structures within sporting organisations, so that, from the bottom up, everyone is able to participate fully.

Flying around the world to attend meetings to address issues in sport is far from glamorous, Clarke says. She’s reluctant to “milk these opportunities”, as some commission members do, for her own integrity.

She also wants to spend more time with her family, and find time to keep fit through the gym, mountain biking, tramping and the odd run.

It’s a challenging environment as a female leader navigating two male dominated worlds – law and sport.

While she always imagined sport and the law could work together, others certainly haven’t held the same belief.

“When I enrolled at university I wanted to do law and physical education bu,t when I got to the campus, the university said I couldn’t do both because a. why would you? and b. there’s a clash in the timetable,” she recalls.

After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the university that there were many legal issues in sport, Clarke enrolled and completed law with honours and an arts degree in political science at Otago University.

On graduating she went to Wellington to work for law firm Simpson Grierson under partner David Howman. At that time, nearly 30 years ago, Clarke says Howman was doing a lot of unpaid work in sport for the likes of the Hillary Commission, a handful of sporting organisations, and a few individual sportspeople.

When Howman left for Canada to head WADA – a role he’d hold for 13 years – he handed over his clients to Clarke.

Pressure from the senior partners of the firm meant she had to start billing clients to justify a place for her sporting clients. She was able to deliver and create an income stream for the firm that went beyond free sporting tickets.

Clarke headed to Australia in 1998 to work specifically on legal sporting issues heading into the Sydney 2000 Olympics, with Rigby Cooke Lawyers.

Returning to New Zealand with a newborn son (who’s now 17), Clarke realised she wanted to go out on her own and drafted a list of potential clients. She initially worked part-time – raising her two young boys around work that clients would fax to her home to review.

Fast forward to 2014, and Clarke had a successful and busy practice with six lawyers working for her. However the full-on nature of running a business took its toll, and Clarke decided it was time for another change of tack.

She now works by herself and does a lot of international work within sport governance.

Her foray into international sport came through a quota spot on the IAAF legal commission – something the accomplished Clarke was initially uncomfortable with.

She was annoyed to be handed a role to fill a spot without the athletics body knowing her skill-set, or even whether she wanted to do the job. But Clarke’s ever-supportive husband encouraged her to take the seat at the table. She remembers him saying: “You’ll have more chance of changing things on the inside than outside.” She now chairs that commission.

Clarke admits one of her greatest challenges has been to be recognised as a sports lawyer within the profession. In her early years, she found herself constantly justifying that there was a place for sports law.

Now she finds navigating cultural differences her biggest challenge.

An example is when Clarke was in South Africa two years ago on a global roadshow with Coe, presenting the new IAAF reform plan to the African member nations. When outlining specifics of the plan, Clarke was stopped in her tracks – questioned by a member about her knowledge of athletics as a “white woman from New Zealand”.

While she was personally challenged by the man who questioned her, Clarke reflects: “It made me realise how much we see sport through an Anglo-Saxon lens. My biggest learning from that situation was not being personally offended, but how do I actually see and think with a different lens.”

Through the challenges, Clarke admits her motivations remain the same. “I’m fundamentally about the value of sport and what it can do for individuals. For me it’s not about improving sport structures, it’s about what those structures deliver.”

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