Lord of the rings keeps the flame alive
2012 OLYMPIC GAMES:President of the OCI Pat Hickey has brought the Olympic Torch to Ireland and still enjoys the cut and thrust of sport politics, writes JOHNNY WATTERSON
THERE’S BEEN little noise recently. No rumpus, no volleys of insults or accusations. There have been no disputes about logos or interference in selections or salty tears over ‘A’ times and ‘B’ times.
There has been no minister for sport thundering off fire and brimstone threats at the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), no Irish Sports Council (ISC) making positional statements on the latest barrage of accusations.
Instead, a deafening vibe of goodwill hums around the sporting corridors, an extended peace replacing the traditional head-butt run in to the Olympic Games.
Already London 2012 – as close as we will ever get to being hosts – is threatening to become a Summer of Love.
Pat Hickey quite likes it this way, although it’s difficult to picture Ireland’s Olympic figurehead cross- legged in his crash pad, with his Birkenstocks sandals and bombing out on Bennies.
The ever ready warrior and dogged defender of all things Olympic has barely had to bare his teeth in four years.
A greater malleability from the man who once said, “we couldn’t even build the jacks” when Gay Mitchell purported a Dublin bid for the games.
“I’m often classified as a political animal in sport, and I am,” he says unapologetically.
“I love the sport connection. The politics of sport can be more brutal than the politics of politics. It can be . . . savage.”
Durable doesn’t describe Hickey. He has too many sides. Over 20 years as president of the OCI, he has acquired varied Olympic hats. The Irish one may be closest to his heart but perhaps it’s the least powerful within the international Olympic community.
He is also president of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) as well as being a senior vice president of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC).
This summer he will again run for a place at the top table in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the executive board.
Despite the armistice there is little sign of slowing.
Nor, as the boy from Phibsboro sees it, any change of pace or philosophy in the house of Olympism. There he remains a fearless attack dog for any person, organisation, or government that dares step on the five rings.
As Hickey often points out, the OCI exists in Ireland specifically to represent IOC interests. They have evolved into a parallel diplomatic service for the Games and the organisation.
An insurance broker and company director by career, the preservation of what all that means has become his life.
“Absolutely this is my life,” he says. “I retired from my own business two years ago and my son and daughter run it. Since I started working for sport in 1980s I’m still a volunteer. I’ve never been paid a salary.
“I never was, not with the Irish Judo Association, never with the OCI and I have to always correct that. People think I am the equivalent of John Treacy (CEO ISC). All of my, career it’s been a volunteer input.
“As president of the European Olympic Committees our office is in Rome. I go to Rome once a fortnight. I spend two nights in Rome and a complete day. In between that there are visits to different countries for different events.
“On June 8th I go to Stockholm. The next day I’m in Luxembourg. Then I go directly to Poland from Luxembourg and I’m there as a fan to enjoy the Euros.
“On the IOC I’m on some commissions such as the co-ordination commission for Rio de Janeiro 2016. I travel there twice a year. As senior vice president of the World Olympic Committees, that means more travel because I have new duties.
“Most weeks I’m in Ireland for two or three days a week and then I try to have every full second week in Ireland. Travel now is a hardship. It’s not like the old days. I’m a home bird. When I have to go I go.”
This week’s torch relay has become a crystallisation of what influence Hickey commands around IOC HQ in Lausanne.
After Beijing, words from the Swiss base, traditionally delivered in tablets of stone, was that the torch should not venture outside the host nation. Following a chain of protests four years ago, the IOC moved to control the event more stringently and shield it from being a magnet for protest groups the world over.
Still, Hickey and double 1500m gold medallist, Seb Coe swung it across the border.
“Seb, who’s chairman of the London Organising Committee, is a great friend of Ireland,” says Hickey. “His grandfather is from Ballyragget, Kilkenny. When President Higgins was elected last year, his first function outside the country was to visit the London Olympic site.
“I was at that and President Higgins presented him with the new certificate of Irishness, the first Briton to get it. He really drove the Torch Relay.”
The issue of triple gold medal swimmer, Michelle de Bruin not carrying the Torch receives a “no comment,” which could be a first from the OCI president.
De Bruin served a four-year ban for a doping offence but retained all of her Olympic medals, so why, or for that matter why not?
Did you ask her?
Did she ask you?
As it stands, Hickey has been head of the Irish Olympic movement for as many years as Lord Killanin, who spanned from 1950-73. Hickey’s reign has been from 1989, although he feels it is time to begin thinking about moving from the parish, so to speak.
If successful in this summer’s IOC elections, he may also follow Killanin onto the IOC’s Executive Board. If Jacques Rogge is the pope, the executive board is his cabinet or curia. In that scenario the Irish baton would be passed on.
“I don’t see myself serving another four-year term (as Irish president),” he says. “If in London I’m elected to the executive board of the IOC, I’m one of the 15 decision makers in the Olympic movement and that with my European hat would be too much. It would be a question of when I would pass the baton and I think the time is right to do it in a measured way. I won’t go deep into that until after London.”