Like him or loathe him, Irish sport needs Hickey


ATHLETICS:The politics of sport is sometimes more political than the politics of politics and no one knows this better than Pat Hickey

FOR A man in danger of being eaten alive by a pack of ravenous politicians, Pat Hickey was incredibly relaxed arriving at Leinster House on Wednesday. At least a lot more relaxed than I was.

Sportswriters have no place inside the corruptible walls of Government Buildings. That's why I was wearing beige chinos and a purple polka-dot tank top. But the security man had other ideas and just as we were summoned into Committee Room Four wanted to know "where was my jacket and tie?" This was another way of saying "forget about coming in here dressed like that, buddy".

I was about to tell him my polka-dot tank top was far more respectable than his tweedy suit when Pat came between us carrying his shiny new black jacket. "Will that not do him?" asked Pat - who is always known to lend a helping hand. "Suppose so," said the security man - realising Pat wasn't a man to be argued with. Not that he had any choice. There was no way of turning Pat Hickey away, not with the Oireachtas Committee on Sport waiting to get their teeth stuck into him. So we were led inside and took our seats.

Not everybody would be comfortable wearing Pat Hickey's jacket. At least not until having a ballistics expert check the pockets. But I knew Pat had his own interests in mind as much as mine. He had some damning words for the Oireachtas Committee and wanted to make sure every one of them went on the record - preferably in the paper of record itself.

I also knew the same hand that had presented me with the jacket could the next day present me with a dagger, which in true political spirit Pat would quickly stab me with - in the front, not the back. That's the way he operates. Pat once told me he liked what I wrote about Irish athletes - and a while later told me I better be careful what I wrote about Irish athletes, if I wanted to go to the next Olympics.

No wonder some people have a hard time believing in Pat Hickey. They say he is a more divisive than uniting when it comes to anything Olympic-orientated. What they usually forget is he didn't become president of the Olympic Council of Ireland without mastering the political manoeuvring that is part of the Olympics. Truth is Ireland has never had a more powerful or authoritative voice in the Olympic movement, at least not since Lord Killanin was running the show. And like all things political, that becomes an addiction - a strong, cruel habit, not easily broken. Anything or anybody could be sacrificed to feed that addiction.

The difference is that unlike so many politicians Pat knows exactly what he's talking about. We were chatting outside the committee room and I asked him what he thought about the campaign for the 2016 Olympics.

This has been in the news for a couple of reasons. A year ago, four cities made the final shortlist of candidates to host the 2016 Olympics: Tokyo, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Chicago. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission has been carrying out a technical appraisal of those cities - ignoring all bribes, naturally - and will prepare a report on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate to go before the IOC Congress in Copenhagen on October 2nd.

As the world sinks into the Great Depression II, the idea of any government leader announcing €20 billion on a two-week sporting festival would probably result in assassination threats - unless his name is Barack Obama.

"That's exactly what's going to happen," Pat told me. "The three other cities all have fantastic bids. The Tokyo bid is superb, probably the best of all. Madrid has most of the Olympic infrastructure in place, a great transport system as well. Rio has a big advantage too in that the Olympics have never gone to a South American city, and it's probably about time they did. But Barack Obama is going to show up in Copenhagen in October. He'll work the room for about 20 minutes and that will probably be enough to swing it for Chicago. The same as Tony Blair swung it for London.

"And could you imagine Gay Mitchell talking about Dublin hosting the Olympics now?"

And that sums it up really - that the politics of sport is sometimes more political than the politics of politics, and no one knows this better than Pat Hickey. Never was it more evident than when he sat before the Oireachtas Committee on Wednesday - the vague purpose of which appeared to be the chance for them to express their concern for all causes in receipt of public funding; in this case, Ireland's Olympic cause.

Pat slaughtered them before they got in a bite. By the time they'd recovered from his vicious attack on the Irish Sports Council - during which chairman Pat "the Cope" Gallagher reminded him he didn't benefit from parliamentary privilege - there was really nothing left to say except "why can't we all just get along?" "We can," said Pat - who told them he had no personality issues with John Treacy, the chief executive of the ISC. "Sure I only had coffee with him the other morning. And every time I go to Lansdowne Road I sit beside him."

There wasn't a single Olympic issue where he didn't run five rings around them. Deputy John O'Mahony seemed to be bemused as much as amused at how he so confidently deflected anything even mildly critical of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

They say the first two rules of journalism are deny everything; and never admit you're wrong - but I've never seen anyone work those two rules better than Pat Hickey did on Wednesday. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't argue with his experience, influence or his political skills.

He will always say what others are afraid to say, and virtually nobody has escaped his wrath, but when it comes to a country the size of Ireland, we can't ignore Pat Hickey. His case for having some say in the running of Irish sport in the four years between the Olympics can't be ignored either - not when Irish athletics, for one, has been allowed make such a mess of itself just three years out from the London Olympics.