As the Irish delegation entered the Maracanã for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, two weeks ago, the stadium's big screens flashed up images of a beaming Patrick Hickey clapping them in, from the seats reserved for the event's overlords, the delegates of the International Olympic Committee.
The long-time president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, or OCI, knows the ceremony’s routine well. Rio is the seventh summer games of his 27-year shift at the head of Irish sport. But as a former judoka who says he still loves being around athletes he looked as if he was still enjoying himself.
We do not know if, as the boxer Paddy Barnes waved the Tricolour, Hickey was yet aware that across town police had, a few hours earlier, detained an Irishman. Named Kevin Mallon, he was working for the Hospitality Group, better known as THG, the company that had been the OCI’s authorised ticket reseller for the London Olympics, in 2012, and Sochi Winter Olympics, in 2014.
Mallon was arrested for alleged ticket touting, although it would still be a full day before his detention was made public. It would be a further three days before it became widely known that he had been picked up in possession of an initially unknown number of OCI tickets.
THG had applied to be an authorised ticket reseller for the Rio Olympics. Police this week said that the games’ organisers had told them that the THG application had been sponsored by the Olympic Council of Ireland. And it had been rejected.
Owned by a British millionaire, Marcus Evans, THG has something of a reputation in the world of sports hospitality. “Aggressive” is one word you hear about them from competitors. The British company applies to be the authorised vendor of tickets and lucrative hospitality packages for high-profile sporting occasions. But it has a record of selling them anyway, whether authorised or not. In June it was reported that the company was being sued by the Union of European Football Associations for alleged unauthorised activities at the Uefa’s European soccer championship in France this summer.
THG was active in Brazil as early as 2014, offering Brazilian companies hospitality packages for the Rio Olympics. One Brazilian conglomerate is suing THG for about €100,000 after it was told by the Rio organising committee last year that the hospitality packages it had bought from THG risked being rejected at the turnstiles.
In a letter seen by The Irish Times the explanation given was that “the company THG Sports does not possess the right to commercialise tickets related to the Games Rio 2016, especially those classified as ‘hospitality’, whether in Brazil or abroad”.
THG insists that Mallon was doing nothing wrong in Rio. It says he was merely acting as a "collection point" in Rio for Pro10, the Dublin company that the OCI selected as its authorised reseller for Rio once THG's application had been rejected.
THG has also released a statement saying that “it would very much welcome”an independent inquiry, chaired by a respected Irish legal figure, into “the Rio16 Olympic ticketing affair”. It pledges full cooperation with an inquest and says it believes it can demonstrate that it has acted lawfully at all times.
Pro10, which was set up in April last year, backs THG’s explanation of Mallon’s actions, saying he was distributing legally purchased tickets to its clients.
But, leaving aside the question of why the OCI’s authorised vendor was left relying on a competitor to distribute its tickets in Rio, police say that other elements of this explanation are contradicted by evidence they gathered at the event where Mallon was arrested. It was a corporate-hospitality event before the opening ceremony, which the clients would then attend.
The Brazilian businessman
Pro10 is authorised to sell Olympics tickets only to Irish and, thanks to EU law, European customers. But a list seen by The Irish Times of the companies at the event organised by Mallon includes several Brazilian companies with no connection to Ireland or Europe.
Instead of viewing the opening ceremony, THG’s clients at the event found themselves involved in a police investigation. Seven witness statements were taken at a police station.
The Irish Times has spoken to one of these witnesses. The owner of a Brazilian company with operations across Latin America – but none in Europe – he confirms that THG contacted him in 2014, offering hospitality packages for the games.
The THG salesman offered a luxury package with “champagne and canape reception, superb four course lunch, celebrity guest speaker” and more. The literature provided by the salesman makes no mention of tickets for the opening ceremony. But the businessman says the salesman made clear that tickets were included.
In fact THG asked him to sign a “consultancy appointment contract” with another Marcus Evans company, called Federation Events Tickets & Incentives Ltd, or Feti, with an address in Dublin. This contract authorised Feti to provide the client with “consultancy and/or agency assistance in its so purchasing the tickets”.
For this contract, seen by The Irish Times, the THG salesperson asked the Brazilian businessman to provide a US address even though he was resident in Brazil. Thinking little of it, the businessman wrote in the college-dormitory address of his daughter, who was studying in the US.
If the contract, with its dubious address, was an effort to justify the sale of US tickets to a Brazilian customer – which would otherwise be unauthorised – it would seem to be irrelevant now. Mallon was in possession only of Olympic Council of Ireland tickets when he was arrested.
The Brazilian businessman bought an Executive Club package for 10 people, paying almost $80,000, in two instalments, into a THG account in Jersey. He says that the THG salesperson promised that he would receive the opening-ceremony tickets a month before the event. But the company later contacted him to say that he would get the tickets on the day of the ceremony.
The Brazilian businessman became nervous. He phoned the Belmond Copacabana Palace, the luxury hotel where the salesperson had said the lunch would be held. The hotel had no reservation for any THG event that day. He had his lawyers write to THG to demand the tickets. They got no reply.
He says that when THG did get back in touch it was to say that, instead of the Copacabana Palace, the customer and his guests were to go to the Next Flat hotel in the Barra neighbourhood.
This was “a third-class hotel, nothing like what I was promised”, he says. “Instead of lunch there were nibbles. I was humiliated in front of clients I’d brought in from abroad for this. And then the police show up.”
The Irish Times has confirmed his account against his police statement. It was on the basis of this and the other statements that police charged Mallon with touting, saying that the “hospitality” on offer was of such poor quality compared with the prices charged that it was merely “camouflage” for gouging.
The difference is significant. Selling unauthorised hospitality packages in Brazil is a civil offence. Gouging on tickets is a criminal one.
THG’s statement “wholly refutes” any suggestion of impropriety on its part, and says that the company has breached no laws or regulations.
As the investigation advanced the police announced that they had issued arrest warrants for a Dutchman, Maarten Van Os, and another Irishman, David Gilmore, as well as for a THG executive named Martin Studd and the company’s owner, Marcus Evans. All are now sought for their alleged involvement in the ticketing affair, a scheme that seems to have relied on Olympic Council of Ireland tickets.
The OCI probe
When Rio’s police revealed on August 8th that Olympic Council of Ireland tickets were implicated, the OCI moved quickly to try to limit the fallout. It released a statement saying that it had no knowledge of Mallon or of Barbara Carnieri, the Brazilian THG employee detained with him.
The OCI also announced “an immediate investigation with our ATR [authorised ticket reseller], Pro10, into how the individuals were allegedly in possession of OCI allocated tickets” adding that it “strictly adheres to the IOC regulations around ticket allocation, sale and re-sale”.
Hickey himself said: “There has been no impropriety whatsoever from anyone within the OCI or myself in the dealing of tickets.”
Minister for Sport Shane Ross was not satisfied with the nature of the proposed OCI probe, which seemed to amount to the organisation investigating itself. Ross demanded that the OCI allow an independent member to join the inquiry, to give it credibility.
Before the controversy erupted the Minister had planned to land in Rio last Sunday – August 14th – to support Ireland’s athletes at the games. But the focus of the trip quickly changed.
The night Ross arrived he met Hickey to discuss the ticketing affair. Arriving at the Windsor Excelsior in Copacabana, Ross sounded bullish in his demand for an independent member to join the OCI panel.
But Hickey came armed for the meeting with advice from a senior counsel in Dublin. It opened with a now widely quoted line: “In general, Shane Ross needs ‘to be put back in his box.’ ”
After an hour with the Minister Hickey left the Excelsior with the air of a man who had done exactly that. He told the press on his way out that the meeting had been “excellent” but that he had had to refuse the Minister’s request, as “under senior-counsel advice we are carrying out our own investigation, which has already started, and we are not investigating ourselves: we are investigating the trail of the tickets and what has happened.”
The meeting seemed to have been less than excellent for Ross. More than an hour after Hickey left the building the Minister came down to read a statement and answer questions.
Ross said that he was stunned by Hickey’s “extraordinary decision”. He talked of consulting his with his Minister of State for Sport and the Attorney General about the Government’s next move. He did not rule out some sort of investigation parallel to the OCI one.
The Minister’s previous bullishness was gone. Round one to the former judoka.
Given the extraordinary measures put in place in Rio to accommodate the International Olympic Committee and its banner event, Ross might have wondered about the sort of organisation he had picked a quarrel with.
Hickey’s media adviser was at the hotel briefing about how, as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Hickey was answerable to the International Olympic Committee, not the Irish Minister for Sport.
On Monday afternoon the two men met again at a reception for the country’s Olympic delegation, hosted by Ireland’s Ambassador to Brazil, Brian Glynn. Hickey refused to talk to the press at it.
The Minister said that his department was keeping all its options open. But this was now couched in soft talk about the need to prevent the controversy from distracting the country’s athletes and his sadness about Katie Taylor’s defeat earlier in the day. It sounded as if Hickey still had him pinned to the mat.
Since then Ross’s side has said that talks were going on and that compromise with the OCI was within sight. Such machinations became irrelevant on Wednesday morning, with the bombshell that police had raided the Windsor Marapendi hotel in Barra and taken the OCI president into custody.
The ‘Olympic Family’ tickets
Police had arrived with an arrest warrant from the same Rio court that had ordered Mallon’s detention.
Several of the tickets in Mallon’s possession were so-called Olympic Family tickets, issued for the exclusive use of members of a national Olympic committee – in Ireland’s case the OCI – their families and sponsors.
Rio’s organising committee says that excess Olympic Family tickets belonging to a national Olympic committee can be released for sale to the general public through the committee’s authorised ticket reseller. But this can occur only after the Rio organising committee has been told of the transfer, to allow it to destroy tickets marked for national committee use and replace them with ones printed for general sale.
The Rio organising committee has confirmed to The Irish Times that this is a standard procedure but refuses to say if the OCI told it that some of its tickets were switching from delegation use to general sale. Police say that they asked the Rio committee the same question and were told that there was no such notification.
The number of such tickets involved is small. “More than 20” was all that police would say at their press conference after Hickey’s arrest. But they might have opened an enormous breach in the Olympic Council of Ireland’s claim that is “strictly adheres to the IOC regulations around ticket allocation, sale and re-sale”.
Hickey’s computer and phones
There was much drama on Wednesday and Thursday. The police claim that after knocking on Hickey’s hotel-room door his wife told them that her husband had already left for Ireland – only for them to find his passport.
There was a subsequent search of the hotel, and a video of them locating him in his dressing gown in the room next door, which had been reserved in his son’s name, has been widely viewed. Hickey was taken to hospital after he became unwell; he left the next day in a wheelchair for processing into Rio’s criminal-justice system.
But the most crucial fact thrown up over those two days might yet prove to be the statement by police that they were combing through computers and mobile phones seized from Hickey. Within hours of Wednesday morning's drama, Rio police said that a preliminary search had already turned up an exchange of emails between Pat Hickey and Marcus Evans, the THG owner. This exchange continued even after the opening ceremony, after Kevin Mallon had been taken into custody.
Although investigators have yet to divulge the content of these discussions, police seem to believe that they hold the key to their investigation.
The offences they are investigating – Pat Hickey’s arrest warrant contains charges of supplying tickets for the purpose of ticket touting, diverting tickets from legitimate use, and false marketing – could result in a sentence to up to seven years in jail. He has not yet been formally charged in court.
If anyone in the OCI was conspiring to circumvent the Olympic movement’s ban on THG selling tickets for Rio, this would also hold implications for Pro10, which Rio police have described as little more than a convenient bridge used to get tickets from the OCI to THG.
Pro10’s three directors, Michael Glynn, Eamonn Collins and Ken Murray, have all been unavailable for comment in Ireland since the controversy intensified. In Brazil they have been declared fugitives from justice, and Interpol has been alerted to their Brazilian arrest warrants.
In a statement Pro10 echoes the expressed wish of THG that there be a full “commission of investigation” that would investigate “all relevant facts and report its conclusions in the shortest possible time”. Pro10 says that it has “nothing to hide” and is “therefore anxious that . . . our good name can be exonerated”.
Hickey’s lawyers are trying to get him out of prison. They will likely argue police and judicial overreach, although even if they are successful he is unlikely to be free in time for the games’ closing ceremony this weekend. The cool public reaction from the International Olympic Committee to their fellow delegate’s arrest means that he might not be welcome even if he could attend.
Sadly for Ireland it has been an increasingly scandal-plagued two weeks since the opening ceremony, during which the country has accumulated more arrests and arrest warrants than medals in the sporting arena. And as the games draw to a close the ticketing controversy looks to have plenty of miles in it yet.