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?

“No comment.”

Did you ask her?

“No comment.”

Did she ask you?

“No comment.”

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.”

It has been quite a journey from St Vincent’s School in north Dublin for a working class lad, whose natural instincts are Fianna Fáil. He has twice declined to run with them for public office and ironically FF ministers have been those with whom he has had the most vitriolic disputes. Former minister for sport Jim McDaid, still draws ire from the 66-year-old.

“Some thought they were God’s gift to mankind,” he says. “The likes of McDaid thought he was the boss. His way or the highway. He didn’t understand that we report to the IOC not the Government. He couldn’t accept that.

“Then there was a period where the ISC tried to subsume the OCI into a department. We had to resist that. We eventually got that message across and now John (Treacy) and I work very closely together.

“In general, we never have interference, except from McDaid. Gay Mitchell then went on his rampage about bringing the Olympics to Dublin. I said we couldn’t even build the jacks for the main stadium. That will be on my tombstone.”

There is still bite in Hickey and his focus on making it into the IOC’s supreme council means more ambition, not less. The past two decades have allowed him mingle with those far from north Dublin.

There are at least 14 kings, queens, rajas or sheikhs in the 104 group of IOC members, the College of Cardinals if you like beneath the Curia.

But being Irish brought a curious advantage. Less historical baggage and a perception of being no real threat to the bigger countries has allowed Hickey step between the gaps.

The most recent alignment of Hickey, whose family did not have enough money to put him through university, has been with Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, president of the global conglomerate ANOC.

“You fit in with them,” he says. “Life is life and you have to deal with these people. Most of them are not involved with the politics. (Former) president Samaranch had a thing for royalty. He appointed a lot of royals.

“The ones I find very helpful are the ones like Princess Anne, an Olympic competitor. She lived in an Olympic village. She knows what she is talking about and is not afraid to say it.

“I’ve a very good relationship with Prince Albert of Monaco. He’s an athlete and was in the bobsleigh team as well as having a special grá for Ireland because of his mother. My president of ANOC is the sheikh of Kuwait. He’s from the wealthy family of Kuwait and he devotes all his time to sport. He doesn’t take a salary. He doesn’t need to. I find you mix in with them and you deal with them.”

As ever the IOC appears to be a mix of old world and new. Drugs and corruption were the twin evils of the movement when Rogge took over from Samaranch. The IOC undertook a program to enforce western standards of ethics on countries that require agreed levels of corruption to function.

Neither are battles to be wholly won or lost but a more modern problem has emerged to overshadow what were the old world venialities, and illegal gambling has become the bete noir of the IOC. The choice of whether to be part of a crooked syndicate may not even be in the hands of the athletes any more.

“The modern problem has shocked me and is apparently going to be worse than doping,” says Hickey. “Illegal gambling. President Rogge has said that. I’m on a committee that sits on this issue in Lausanne. The first meeting I went to they had senior British police officers there.

“When I heard the stories . . . of what’s going on in a football match in Asia – a massive bet on the first guy to kick the ball into touch.

“In Beijing the IOC created an agency headquartered in Zurich monitoring bets on the Olympics, all of the sports. If they saw a trend and nothing huge happened, they would pick it up.

“They are worried. I heard stories about Pakistani or Indian cricketers from very poor backgrounds up in the mountains, their families kidnapped for the four or five days they are playing the game. I was amazed.

“It’s much more difficult than the drug problem. Any of the conferences I’ve been at, speaker after speaker has been saying that this is the biggest problem.”

Hickey looks out from the OCI office’s window overlooking Howth Yacht club. A sunny day, the boats are rattling across the water.

He says that John O’Donoghue “a much maligned man” made the offices possible and that when Chinese or Japanese delegations come to visit they think the Irish body must have millions to spend. So close to the ground, so close to the sea, no traffic.

He runs three or four times a week in the Phoenix Park to stay fit and says he likes his privacy and the current serenity. But the batteries are far from dimming.

“I don’t stand behind the door,” he says. “I enjoy the cut and thrust of it. If there is something to be done I come out. I take it on.”

Who else will take part in the relay

Bernard Brogan – 28 years of age (Dublin GAA)

Brian Brunton – 48 (An Garda Síochana)

Eddie Byrne – 54 (Boxing coach)

Michael Carruth – 44 (1992 Olympic welterweight champion)

Áine Ni Choisdealbha – 22 (TCD Scholar)

John Collins – 23 (Pavee Point)

Natalya Coyle – 20 (Modern Pentathlon)

Ronnie Delany – 77 (1956 1,500m Olympic winner)

Anne Ebbs – 71 (Paralympic Movement)

Kenneth Egan – 30 (Light heavyweight silver medallist, Beijing)

Aaron Fallon – 16 (Dublin Artist)

Irial Finan – 54 (Executive VP of Coca-Cola)

Karl Flood – 17 (Simon Community)

Joan Freeman – 54 (Founder of Pieta House)

Gillian Garrett – 38 (Hockey player)

Mubarak Habib – 49 (Sport Against Racism in Ireland)

Denis Hickie – 36 (Former Ireland rugby player)

Áine Holden – 12 (HSE Community Games winner)

Shane Horgan – 34 (Former Ireland rugby player)

Jedward – 20 (John and Edward Grimes: singers)

Ger Killian – 15 (Young Person of the Year in 2007)

Mark Kenneally – 31 (Marathon runner London 2012)

Lee Kinsella – 19 (WAY Project volunteer)

Cillian Kirwan – 15 (St Fintan’s High School, Sutton)

Pamela Lacken – 34 (Special Olympics Ireland volunteer)

Lauren Lawless – 16 (Localise Community Service Project)

Robbie Lyons – 18 (Irish Kidney Association’s ‘Transplant Team Ireland’ in 2010)

Wayne McCullough – 42 (1992 bantamweight silver medalist)

Paul McGrath – 53 (Former Ireland soccer player)

Garret Myhal – (Running for late father, Paul, a former charity runner)

Alva Nolan – 20 (Special Olympics volunteer)

Gary O’Brien – 24 (Special Olympics Ireland nominee)

Sonia O’Sullivan – 42 (5,000m silver medallist Sydney 2000)

Olivia O’Toole – 40 (Ireland’s women international soccer team)

Mark Pollock – 36 (Inspirational figure following the loss of his sight at 22 and a paralysing fall 13 years later)

Niamh Reid-Burke – 21 (All round student athlete)

Henry Shefflin – 33 (Kilkenny hurler)

Tony Sutherland – (Father of the late Darren, a middleweight bronze medalist in Beijing)

Bridget Taylor – 50 (Mother of world champion, boxer Katie)

John Treacy – 56 (Marathon silver medallist Los Angeles 1984)

Ruby Walsh – 33 (National Hunt Champion Jockey)

TORCH RUN: Questions Answers

SINCE May 18th the Olympic Torch Relay has been travelling around Britain and Northern Ireland. On the morning of June 6th the relay will cross the border at Newry and travel by vehicle to the Olympic Council of Ireland offices in Howth.

After a ceremony there it will travel to Dublin city centre where it will be carried around a dedicated route by 40 torch bearers. The OCI were allocated 23 slots for runners and Olympic sponsors such as Coca Cola and Samsung the rest of the places.

It will terminate after a ceremony at the bandstand in St Stephen’s Green at 11.50am before travelling back to Belfast.

Where did the original Torch idea come from? At Olympia, site of the ancient games, a flame burned at the altar of Hestia. But the modern idea was introduced in Amsterdam in 1928. The flame, the five rings, the Olympic oath, the hymn and the anthems took real hold when the Nazis and Leni Riefenstahl’s remarkable film ‘Olympia’ used the powerful images for ultra nationalist propaganda in the build up to the Berlin Games in 1936.

Then what happened? It became a popular pre-game ritual for all of the Olympic Games after Berlin and was quickly assimilated as an historic part of the tradition of the Olympic movement.

Any weird journeys for the Torch? Yes, the torch, but not the flame, has twice been carried into space by astronauts, while camels bore the flame across the Australian desert before the 2000 Sydney Games. It recently went up Snowdonia making it, in all of its physical forms, probably the most travelled piece of sports equipment in history. It’s also running from Belfast’s Shankill Road (Protestant) to the Springfield Road (Catholic). Who’d have thought?

Any mishaps along the way? Yes, the Beijing Torch Relay came to London four years ago, where demonstrators protesting against Chinese policies in Tibet tried several times to put out the flame. Security officials extinguished the flame in Paris at least twice and carried it on a bus in the face of further violent protests. The US leg in San Francisco was also altered to avoid trouble.

Any hitches this time around? Yes. Organisers blamed a “malfunctioning burner” for an incident on day three of the 70-day run. The torch was attached to 23-year-old David Folletts wheelchair when it went out on its way from Exeter to Taunton in England. The torch design had been tested at BMW’s climatic centre in Munich to ensure it could stay alight in all weather conditions.

Why the rumpus for Dublin? After the protests four years ago it was decided that the flame would stay in the country where the games where being held. The Republic of Ireland clearly is not Britain and to get it across the border to Dublin meant two governments, two police forces and an assembly of sports bodies and ministers agreeing to bend the rules for a few hours.

Why Howth first? Because the Olympic Council of Ireland’s permanent offices are located opposite Howth Yacht Club in what must be one of the most picturesque locations for any National Olympic Committee. Also former OCI chief Lord Killanin became an IOC president, while current OCI president Pat Hickey is an IOC member.

How many Olympic gold medallists will carry the torch? Ronnie Delany, who won the gold medal in 1956 in the 1500 metres, which was then the blue riband event (now it’s the 100m) is a torch bearer. Also Michael Carruth, the former army captain who won gold at welterweight in Barcelona 1992 is involved. In the spirit of Irish inclusiveness hockey gold medal winners with GB Jimmy Kirkwood and Sam Martin (Olympic Council’s CEO) will bear the torch north of the border.

Why is there 41 names listed but 40 runners officially named? Because Belfast born boxer Wayne McCullough is included among the 41 names on the Irish list. The silver medallist from Barcelona is involved in the border crossing part of the relay and, although named as part of the Republic of Ireland team, is actually a nominee from the Dept Culture, Arts and Leisure of Northern Ireland.

It was stated that no current Olympic qualifiers can take part yet marathon runner Mark Kenneally and modern pentathlte Natalya Coyle are running? The OCI did make that rule but sponsors, who were given 17 places, had already chosen their runners for the event and Kenneally Coyle were two of those.

If you don’t want to go into Dublin can you watch? Yes. RTE are covering the relay on RTÉ One from 9.00am. There is also live streaming worldwide on the RTÉ website.