Keith Duggan: Time to leave behind the legacy of Pat Hickey
Shane Ross needs to back the new OCI leadership for the sake of the athletes
Pat Hickey, former president of the Olympic Council of Ireland. New president Sarah Keane has pledged to reform the OCI. Photograph: Alan Betson
There was a blackly amusing moment at Friday’s hearing into the Rio Olympics fallout in the Oireachtas. Conversation turned to the dreamy days of the London games in 2012 when John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey, key figures in the then Sports Council of Ireland, had to share an accreditation.
Treacy, as a veteran and, indeed, medallist of previous Olympic summers, picked the smart week to wear the single laminated pass and was present for Ireland’s medal rush in the boxing arena. Mulvey recalled joking with Treacy ahead of Rio that he would be cleverer about which days to attend this time around.
As it turned out, they had other things to occupy their minds during that mad fortnight in Brazil. Mulvey told the story both in light relief and as example of where the then Sport Ireland’s influence in Olympic accreditation began and ended. It was unintentionally instructive because it beggars belief that two senior figures in Irish sports administration had to time-share a pass to the Olympics. Nothing in the hours of conversation so vividly caught just how Irish sport and Government tolerated and ignored the fact that when it came to the Olympics, there was only one powerbroker and everyone knew it for years.
It is unlikely that the report by Mr Justice Carroll Moran, specifically about the OCI ticketing and more generally about the culture within the organisation, will make any list of Ryan Tubridy’s must-have summer reads. But it’s a page-turner nonetheless and presents in crystalline detail the chronology of decisions and events behind the sudden firestorm of controversy, intrigue, dawn arrests, prison detentions and email trails which diverted attentions away from the best efforts of the Irish athletes. As the Moran report acknowledges, it was “limited in its investigations and findings” by virtue of its non-statutory basis and by “the invocation of many of the principal parties of the right against self-incrimination”.
So the main parties, including former OCI president Pat Hickey, acting on legal advice, weren’t gonna say nothin’ to no one. And there’s nothin’ we could do about it. The publication of the report and the Oireachtas hearing leaves the OCI at an impasse. Pat Hickey’s legal case in Rio has yet to be heard. Shane Ross, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, has used the publication of the report to declare that Hickey used the OCI as a “personal fiefdom”.
It’s probable that Ross is still smarting from the offhand way he was treated by Hickey when he sought a meeting in Rio days before that dramatic arrest. One of the sub-themes of the report outlines the strenuous grasp on “independence” maintained during the Hickey-era OCI from the guises of Sport Ireland and, by extension, the breezy indifference, bordering on contempt, with which Hickey dealt with the office of the minister for sport.
It’s hardly revelatory that Hickey regarded his role in the OCI as all but untouchable: there are many interviews here and elsewhere in which he happily elaborated on his talent for laying waste to would-be challengers and to pesky ministerial interference. Everyone knew he was a canny operator and ran the OCI in a certain way and that was that.
Now, Ross has warned that he cannot sanction further funding to the OCI until all ties have been cut with THG (the authorised ticket-reseller) and until reforms have been met. It’s the classic Irish political response: pull on the 16-hole Dr Martens boots months after the horse has bolted and make a show of giving a kicking to the stable door. It’s an empty gesture. Who gets punished now if the OCI is not adequately funded? Ultimately, it’s the athletes.
Yesterday, Sarah Keane appeared before the Oireachtas in her role as successor to Pat Hickey as president of the OCI. Her appearance was in marked contrast to, for instance, the parade of bankers whose Oireachtas appearances were characterised by nauseating arrogance and thinly-disguised hostility. Keane faced a series of questions which can be distilled into a universal phone-shorthand: wtf?
Her answers were, for the most part, detailed, informative and persuasive. Keane joined the board of the OCI two years before the Rio debacle and admitted to harbouring increasing concerns about the culture within the council and the “dictatorial stuff” she noticed as time went on. It is nonetheless awkward for her that she was on the board of the OCI when it paid out €360,000 to its president as part of an agreed €60,000 per annum honorarium. Correspondence with the OCI’s solicitors during the compilation of the Moran report alerted attentions to a particular article of association outlining that “members of the council, with the exception of those who devote themselves to the administration of sport, shall not accept any salary or fee of any kind in respect of their position thereon”.
Keane stressed that when she formed part of the three-person crisis team following Hickey’s arrest, one of the first things they did was secure the database of information without which the Moran report would not have been possible. She outlined the vision of the OCI under her stewardship – one that is moving towards a model based on transparency and strategy and entirely tilted towards the welfare and benefit of the athletes it purports to serve: in financial support, in travel arrangements and in ticketing for future Olympics.
At times she seemed to be seething as she described the current legal and financial impasse the council finds itself in – not least with the presentation of documents, just in the past fortnight, from THG detailing that they are, in fact, contracted to represent the OCI as official resale operator until the conclusion of the 2026 games. It was striking how seldom she mentioned Mr Hickey by name, whose byzantine methodology has become her inheritance.
‘Uno duce, una voce’
The government position now should be fairly clear. Either Ross believes that the current board of OCI has done and is doing its utmost to implement reform and erase the “uno duce, una voce” culture which existed during Hickey’s era. And if he believes that, then he needs to acknowledge that and back them. And if he doesn’t, then he needs to declare the OCI irredeemably tarnished and do something: push for its dissolution and the inception of a new body to administer Ireland’s Olympic affairs.
The Rio Olympics were nothing less than a tragedy for the city. A hard-won symbol of Brazil’s roaring economy when the IOC anointed Rio in 2009, they were unaffordable to a country plunged into economic turmoil by 2016. The city bought a €13 billion fortnight-long fantasy which most of the city’s population couldn’t afford to go and see. Close to half the Olympic venues are now deserted.
Plans to turn the 31 towers in the athletes’ village into permanent housing have stalled and they sit dark and empty. Hopes to turn Olympic Park into a commercial venture failed: there were no bidders. There are reports that the organising committee are trying to pay back some of the $40 million still outstanding with air-conditioning units and with electric cables. The Olympics is just another mammoth problem in a city beset with them.
The Irish ticketing controversy is a comparatively small and pathetic footnote in the hugely delinquent extravaganza. It is clear that there won’t be any quick or tidy legal resolution – if there ever is one. Already, a year has passed. The athletes, the Tokyo aspirants, are in training, off-stage and by themselves. The least they deserve is a clear message as to what the OCI is now and that needs to come from the Minister for Sport.