OCI election: After Hickey era, successor must restore faith

Whoever takes charge must shift group’s focus from boardroom to competitors

Pat Hickey speaking during the closing ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Pat Hickey speaking during the closing ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

 

Thursday’s gathering of Ireland’s Olympic sporting families at the Conrad hotel in Dublin is billed as an historic night even if there is a nagging sense that the stakes could not be lower.

The only certainty is that when the ballot papers are returned by the snow-sports fraternity, by the wrestling delegate, by the representatives of fencing, curling and other assorted sports, the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) will have someone other than Patrick J Hickey as its president.

The Dubliner’s period in charge began in 1989 when communism was still alive if not entirely well in Eastern Europe, and he continued in that role until his arrest and prolonged detention in Rio at last summer’s Olympic games. For the 34 member bodies affiliated to the OCI, having someone other than Hickey at the helm is going to seem like a radical departure in itself.

Some of the organisations have demonstrated such an unblinking faith in his leadership that it would be no huge surprise if Hickey wins a few votes on automatic even though he is not running. But the Hickey era is over, and his successor faces laborious and patient rehabilitative work to restore the public faith – and interest – in the OCI.

The storm of coverage and reaction to Hickey’s arrest, magnified because of his elevated position in the International Olympic Committee pecking order (president of the European Olympic Committee, IOC executive member), led to an autumn of crisis-management for OCI board members.

Soul-searching was reflected by way of a pricey and thorough review carried out by Deloitte. Appointing independent reviews is the auto-reflexive move of chastened sports organisations wishing to demonstrate their seriousness about implementing change.

The review was announced on September 12th. It probably wasn’t the most challenging contract ever carried out by Deloitte. By October 20th, its report was ready for reading. A copy was obtained by The Irish Times. The headline stated that the report’s summary found that the “OCI failed on basic requirements”. The only possible public response to this was: I’ll say.

No oversight

The findings of the report surprised nobody, and one of its chief recommendations – that there should be agreed limits to terms in office of executive members – has been an issue ever since it became clear that Hickey commanded such loyalty that any challenge to his position would be crushed.

The OCI regards its role as to provide a “clear vision, mission and set of objectives” for the Olympic sports federations in Ireland. Hickey became the public name and face of the OCI over the past three decades. His decision not to attend Thursday night’s agm shifts attention to the governing body itself.

The OCI itself is a tiny organisation, with just four full-time members of staff. Those who sit on the executive board do so in a voluntary capacity. Officially, there is no honorarium in place, according to an OCI spokesperson, although the organisation did grant Hickey a €360,000 “honorarium award” in recognition of services over the last six years of his tenure. Normal expense allowances, however, do apply.

Given that Sport Ireland allocates funding to athletes and that individual federations are responsible for identifying and coaching athletes with Olympic potential, the practical role of the OCI is more difficult to define. Apart from organising the travel and team suits for the winter and summer games, what is the point of the OCI and what does it do?

Special sponsorship

The accomplishments or otherwise of Hickey will be scrutinised and evaluated once the prolonged legal proceedings in Rio have concluded. Regardless of whether he stands trial, the allegations he faces have been damaging to the reputation of the OCI and dealing with the fallout has been expensive.

Reimagining the OCI for an Irish public which has lost all faith in State-funded organisations will require some bold and clear thinking on the part of the new president and the executive board. If the OCI is to provide a vision and voice for its member bodies then that should become evident in the coming months.

While athletics and boxing and, to some extent, swimming have relatively established profiles in Irish sports, many other federations are virtually obscure. Perhaps the OCI can start here.

Tradition and prevailing culture directs Irish children towards the dominant organisations and games – Gaelic games, rugby, soccer. Should the OCI be fighting for the rights and advancement of young athletes trying to excel in those sports regarded as “fringe” pursuits in Ireland?

Olympic medals

For three decades Hickey’s administrative and bureaucratic adroitness gave Ireland a political administrator with an unusually high profile and access to power. What that amounted to, beyond terrific seats at the opening and closing ceremonies, is for future debate. Perhaps the key task for his successor lies in moving the OCI energies away from the boardroom and on to the running track, the judo mat, the pool deck, the basketball court.

If the OCI – and its new president – can, before Tokyo 2020, begin to convince Irish athletes that it has their back, then maybe Thursday’s vote will have meant something.

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