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Working class lad's rise to World Athletics' integrity enforcer

26 March 2020 - By Jock Anderson

Working at the highest levels of New Zealand and world sport, Don Mackinnon wasn’t a particularly accomplished sportsman but counts himself lucky playing alongside some of the greats in a golden age of New Zealand rugby.

Turning out for the Marist senior rugby team in Auckland for several years he played alongside multiple All Blacks, including John Kirwan, Zinzan and Robin Brooke, Bernie McCahill and Terry Wright.

“It was a golden age in that great but dying era when great players of all types played alongside us amateurs.”

NameDonald Angus (Don) Mackinnon
BornAuckland
Age 55
Entry to lawGraduated LLB from Auckland University and LLM from London School of Economics. Admitted in 1988.
WorkplaceBarrister in City Chambers, Auckland.
Specialist areaEmployment law, mediation and sports law.

Don also played premier grade cricket. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I ended up doing sports law.”

Photo of Don Mackinnon 1

Don is chair of the Blues super rugby club and the World Athletics Integrity Vetting Panel, and a director of New Zealand Cricket. He previously served as a director of Sport New Zealand, High Performance Sport New Zealand and was chair of Netball New Zealand.

Previously a founding partner of SBM Legal and before that a partner at Simpson Grierson for 10 years, including three years as head of litigation, Don joined City Chambers in February.

“I have a strange family mix, like that old song The Orange and The Green. My father Neil was a Waikato dairy farmer with a staunch Protestant background and my mother Pat was an Irish catholic from Auckland.

“So I’m both sides of the coin. All of my five siblings were practical people - builders, electricians, nurses. Coming along last I found out I was useless at all of those things, but everyone told me I could talk so I had to find a career that involved communication.

“I was hugely influenced by a great teacher at St Peter’s College, George Harvey. He instilled in me a love of history, books and theatre, and encouraged me to consider law as an option. I had not at that point.

“I came from a hard-working working class family and I will be forever grateful to him. He was a great man and it reinforces to me the extraordinary importance of education and having great teachers in our system because he certainly changed my life.

“There are no other lawyers in the family and my parents were quietly shocked but also quietly delighted. They were very supportive but it was something outside their comfort zone. I remember the day I was admitted to the Bar and put on the wig and gown. It was a pretty extraordinary day.”

Young boy in at the deep end

Always attracted to litigation initially, Don was involved early in his career in “a big legal stoush at Marsden Point in the days when unions were extremely strong.”

“I loved it, I found it fascinating and found the strategy behind it fascinating. I was the young boy out of my depth but enthralled by the human drama of it all.

“After I came back from the UK I was lucky to secure a job at Simpson Grierson where Pip Muir was the leading employment lawyer in the country at the time. I learned so much from Pip.

“Employment law suits me. You need to have a strong level of empathy for people and you need to understand the human element in just about every employment dispute. My career has been acting for employers about 80% of the time and 20% for employees. It is important to act for both and to understand the issues from both sides.”

Married to personal trainer Cheryl the couple have three grown-up children - Amy (25) and Josh (23), who both work in advertising, and Adam (20) who is studying engineering at Queensland University.

“Fitness remains a prerequisite to a happy home. Health and fitness is a big part of our lives, as is sport.

“I have retained a love of history, travel and good books. I also grew up in a family that loved music.”

With most of his spare time now committed to sporting interests, Don has previously served on a number of charitable boards. “I am passionate about giving back to the community and hope I keep doing that until the day I die.”

Don initially went to the UK to reunite with an older brother who left home when Don was seven. “I thought I should get to know him, and it was also a good idea to do some study.”

“I fell in love with London and go there regularly. It is the most fascinating city on the planet.”

He lived in London for two-and-a-half years, studying and working and met his Kiwi wife Cheryl there. “I encourage any young person to seriously consider London as part of their journey.” Don gained his LLM from the London School of Economics (LSE).

Country music and Sinatra

“My wife comes from a classical music background but I don’t play any instruments.

“I grew up with a strange mixture of country music, which my father loved, and the sort of Brat Pack music of Sinatra and co which my mother loved. Music was constantly played in the house, and is in our house too.

“My country favourites are singer Tim McGraw, the Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan and Van Morrison, but it could also be classical.

“Mum and Dad were more Marty Robbins and Charley Pride, and at family reunions that music still all comes out. The country in me made me try to play the harmonica but it’s harder than it looks. I tried to play the guitar but never stuck with it.

“I read a lot and it depends on the mood whether it’s something light or something more classical. I have just re-read Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, which I hadn’t read since university days, and it is still one of the great books. I take John Grisham on holidays, and like historical novels.

“We watch Netflix - Chernobyl was extraordinary. We like Bodyguard and British drama series The Capture, involving the whole issue of validity of video evidence and potentially how it can be doctored.

“We have a great little movie theatre down the road called the Lido, which my wife and I pop down to from time to time. It’s very much part of our social life. My favourite movie of all time is Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon was young, with Ben Affleck and Robin Williams. I’m a bit of a Damon fan. I also enjoyed seeing 2017 recently.”

Driving a new Ford Ranger, Don says he has been under constant pressure from his children for 15 years to get a dog, but instead has a compromise cat. “A street cat called Kiara, who can be quite terrifying to most creatures including us in the house.”

“We’ve just come back from a week in Queenstown, which I like, but I love Europe and feel incredibly home in London. We have been lucky enough to take our kids to Europe a few years ago and they fell in love with it.

“Barcelona is one of my favourite cities, as is Rome.

“My sporting roles have taken me to a lot of places. I was lucky enough to be at the Cricket World Cup final at Lord’s last year (when England beat New Zealand on a boundary count back).

My role with World Athletics takes me to Monaco once or twice a year, and exotic places such as Doha. I was recently hosted by the Welsh Rugby Union at a Six Nations game in Dublin. Sport has been incredibly kind to me and allowed me to see a lot of the world.”

Don Athletics

[From left: David Howman, New Zealand lawyer Maria Clarke, Lord Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics and Don Mackinnon]

Don’s first choice of dinner guest is Indian politician Gandhi. “With somebody controversial like Adolf Hitler – it would be interesting to try to understand him. And Jesus Christ would be worth an invitation too. That would make for an interesting dinner table conversation.

“I try from time to time to cook. The classic Kiwi barbecue and roast dinner are my specialities. It’s a constant new year’s resolution to become a better cook, but doesn’t seem to get much further than that. To drink would be Central Otago pinot, sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, or a grunty Aussie shiraz.”

The Barker bark

“As a young lawyer I was sent up to the High Court to appear before Justice (Sir) Ian Barker, totally unprepared, and copping the bollocking of my life. It was an excellent piece of learning for me. Learning to turn up at court prepared and knowing your stuff.

“I have always taken the view I would never put a young lawyer in that position.

“Last year I had to present to more than 600 delegates from all around the world at the World Athletics conference and talk to them about integrity.

“Some of them were hostile to the idea of an integrity panel because they didn't think it was necessary. That was an incredibly interesting and invigorating process which I think went well. It certainly was an extremely memorable moment.”

Don chairs one of two World Athletics integrity panels. His deals with the integrity of officials and administrators while fellow New Zealand David Howman chairs the panel that deals with the integrity of athletes.

“If you want to get a role with World Athletics in an official or administration sense you have to pass an integrity check, which is an ongoing process. Integrity tests were introduced by Lord Seb Coe in sweeping reforms a few years ago.

“I would love to say my alternative career would be as a professional sportsman but I was never remotely good enough. I think I would follow my father’s roots into dairy farming.

“Either that or training champion race horses. My father was a passionate horse racing man, I still follow them and have the odd ownership share. I love riding horses, which I get to do every two or three years, and love horse racing.”

Last updated on the 26th March 2020