Irish Olympic sports emerging from Pat Hickey’s shadow

Two years on from ticket scandal, federation’s transformation is almost complete

Former president of the Olympic Council of Ireland Pat Hickey. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Former president of the Olympic Council of Ireland Pat Hickey. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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Just to think that it all began on a non-eventful morn. We may never learn the truth behind his arrest at the five-star Windsor Marapendi Hotel in Rio in the early hours of August 17th, 2016, but at least there is no more disputing the power or the influence of Pat Hickey. Gone is the last pale shadow of it.

Where is he now? Beyond any fair and reasonable quest for closure, some final judgment call on his still curious case of alleged ticket touting and money laundering, lies the more pertinent question: who even cares anymore?

It’s easy to see without looking too far that Irish sport has never been in a better place. Particularly Irish Olympic sport. From athletics to rowing, hockey, sailing, swimming, horse jumping and gymnastics, boxing of course and right down to the modern pentathlon, there is the palpably exciting prospect of unprecedented success in Tokyo 2020, now less than two years away.

Only given all that we know by now, a lot less exciting, is the prospect that Hickey could be still the lord of this ring, along with the artists formerly known as the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). Without the intervention of the Rio police, for whatever reason, all famously captured on Brazilian TV, the same OCI which had “failed on basic requirements” would still be running the show.

That was the headline of the Deloitte report, published two months after Hickey’s arrest in Rio, and which helped cue the complete dismantling of the OCI. By then it was clear that things needed to change, and not just when it came to ensuring the fair and proper allocation of Olympic tickets: Lack of transparency, a failure to understand demarcation lines between office holders and no oversight of auditing were among the many other deep faults outlined in the Deloitte report, plus the immediate need for agreed limits to terms in office of executive members.

“There was nobody interested, because of my past history,” Hickey told me, in 2014, when asked why he believed no one had stood against him for OCI president since 2001. That was after winning a record seventh four-year term, originally due to expire this month, which would have meant the Dubliner had done 29 years in office. At that point Hickey had also lined up his second vice-president, John Delaney, as his likely successor, and with that likely to continue an OCI regime which began in 1989, when communism was still alive if not entirely well in eastern Europe.

John Cahalane and Fiona Muldoon of FBD Insurance, with Chloe Watkins (Hockey), Paul O’Donovan (Rowing), Sarah Ennis (Eventing), Gary O’Donovan (Rowing), Sarah Keane, Olympic Federation of Ireland president, Nhat Nguyen (Badminton) and Olympic Federation of Ireland chief executive Peter Sherrard. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
John Cahalane and Fiona Muldoon of FBD Insurance, with Chloe Watkins (Hockey), Paul O’Donovan (Rowing), Sarah Ennis (Eventing), Gary O’Donovan (Rowing), Sarah Keane, Olympic Federation of Ireland president, Nhat Nguyen (Badminton) and Olympic Federation of Ireland chief executive Peter Sherrard. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Delaney, chief executive of the FAI, was among the first to jump the OCI ship in the aftermath of Hickey’s arrest. If any organisation is to be torn apart it must first be split somewhere down the middle, which by then the OCI clearly was. Touting allegations aside, there was also plenty of sound and fury from former athletes and Olympians and other sporting representatives, all damningly adamant the OCI needed to change from the top down. Or indeed the bottom up, whichever came quicker. By then too Hickey’s reign as OCI president was written in water: it could not possibly last.

By the night of February 9th, 2017, revolution was in the air, the last egm of the now former OCI resulting in Sarah Keane, chief executive of Swim Ireland, taking over the president’s seat, winning 29 of the 43 votes cast and immediately declaring a Glasnost of sorts. Resistance was futile for even the last of Hickey’s old Praetorian Guard.

Now the transformation – transfiguration even – is almost complete. On Wednesday of this week the newly rebranded Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI), in most ways unrecognisable from the former OCI, announced its first sponsorship deal ahead of Tokyo 2020, with FBD Insurance, and with that presented fresh evidence of a makeover that appears far from simply cosmetic.

Which is both their aim and purpose: in the troubling aftermath of Rio the Irish Olympic brand was considered toxic and none of the OCI sponsors renewed their deals for Tokyo. The OFI, in every sense, were starting from scratch.

The intention now is to get two more headline sponsors, including a new kit sponsor, and Peter Sherrard, who last year became the new chief executive of the OFI, admitted it isn’t “completely universal”, but there is an awareness “that things have changed, and things have moved on”. Sherrard still gets the occasional earful from taxi drivers when mentioning his Olympic role but he’s also found “there is a huge amount of goodwill, a good appetite for seeing what can happen . . . and I won’t deny, the success of the sports this summer has certainly helped”.

Keane herself also recounted a story of being on holiday in west Clare in August, sitting in a small bar and listening to some locals talking about the success of Irish swimming, and gymnastics even, and getting a little rush out of that. There was no hint of power or wider influence and it was easy to see without looking too far that Irish Olympic officialdom has rarely been in a better place.

Whatever about completely restoring public trust, or indeed interest, the first intention of the OFI is to put the athlete first, and to have their back second, and that’s certainly good enough for now.

Meanwhile, the last chapter in the Hickey controversy may never be written, the supreme court in Brasília last November agreeing an injunction to suspend the case – indefinitely, it would seem, given the desperate clutter of things over there. No word either if or when Hickey might return to his seat on the executive committee of the International Olympic Committee. He may miss the fist-pumping with Vladimir Putin and the $900-a-day Games per diem but who really cares anymore?

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