Acting president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) William O’Brien has admitted to travelling business class to the Rio Olympics while athletes were only afforded economy.
O’Brien was also adamant he is the right man to lead the OCI for the next four years, despite this conflicting with one of the key recommendations of Deloitte report which examined the association’s governance in the aftermath of the Rio ticket-touting controversy.
All three OCI presidential candidates at next month’s EGM in Dublin were speaking to Saturday Sport on RTÉ radio, although O’Brien, who took up the position on a temporary basis following Pat Hickey’s decision to step down while facing those charges of ticket touting, is the only one with extensive links to the OCI, a member of the executive committee since 1996.
One of the other candidates, Swim Ireland CEO Sarah Keane, has been an OCI executive member for the last two years only, while the third candidate Bernard O'Byrne, former CEO of the FAI and currently CEO of Basketball Ireland, has had no previous role.
O'Brien also struggled more than the other two with the hard line of questioning by RTÉ's Joanne Cantwell, particularly when it came to the Deloitte recommendation which was unambiguous in limiting terms for all executive committee members, including officers, to "two four-year terms".
O'Brien, however, appeared to contradict himself: "There are 25 recommendations, and I intend to make sure that each one of those recommendations are provided for, and are monitored by the International Olympic Committee (OCI)," he said.
By going forward for what would effectively be a sixth term, he was asked was he therefore not agreeing with that particular recommendation.
“I disagree with it from the point of view of the continuity of service to the OCI”, he explained. “I spent two terms, eight years, as a committee member at ground floor level, learning from those experiences. And I’ve spent three terms, as first vice president, learning from the experiences. We will implement that recommendation. In order to implement them, I have to stay on, and work on implementing them.
“We can’t just look at it in isolation, of cutting everything off, after two terms, or three terms, putting everybody out, throwing out the baby with the bath water, and starting off all over again. That’s doesn’t provide continuity, going forward, for a good experience for the athletes.”
He was also asked why he felt the OCI had lacked transparency up to now, under the leadership of Hickey, especially given O’Brien worked so closely with him.
"I'd probably taken my eye off the ball, in line of the transparency, and the requirement from the management side of the Games. Because I was so focused in making sure the platforms were correctly in place for the athletes, that we were working closely with the Irish Sports Council in terms of the technical preparations, and in terms of providing the amenities for the athletes. You have to rely on the members of the committee that you are working with, in some instances."
Asked was it a mistake to rely on others, he said: “Of course it was a mistake.”
On the issue of OCI travel arrangements, and council members flying business class, O’Brien said that as president he would not travel first class: in the past, however, he has.
“I believe that on a long haul trip like Rio, everybody should travel business class. Unfortunately, it’s such an expensive commodity, the OCI couldn’t afford that.”
But they could afford it for members of the OCI?
“They could afford it for them,” he said, with a gentle laugh. “I will admit to that.”
O'Brien was also questioned on whether he considered it "healthy" to be the man to lead the OCI into the future given his close links with Hickey; "It's the OCI leadership we're talking about it here. I don't believe that has anything to do with my presidency going forward. Pat Hickey was arrested, he is currently on bail, and he is innocent until proven guilty."
O'Brien has been nominated for the OCI presidency by three federations: Archery Ireland (his own federation), and also the Irish Ice Hockey Association and the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association; both Keane and O'Byrne were nominated by their federations only.
O’Byrne, who admitted he was “an outside to the OCI scene”, said the “OCI was screaming for change, and “that’s what I offer... a different vision for the OCI, in terms of making it more relevant to Irish sport”.
He too claimed he would apply all the recommendations of the Deloitte report. O’Byrne was called up on a controversy during his term as CEO in the FAI, when he admitted to “clerical errors” with regard to a company credit card, and was asked might that be a “difficulty” for the OCI election.
“It’s never a difficult when you tell the truth,” he said, “and there was absolutely no impropriety there. I left the FAI because it was the right thing to do at the time”.
He was also asked about his policy of travelling business class: “I wouldn’t be planning it. Actually, when I’m booking flights, I always book the cheapest flight. Maybe I’m miserable but that’s what I do.”
Keane also outlined her presidential manifesto, saying it was time for “radical change” within the OCI, in terms of strategy and behaviour, and that “personally, I am totally behind the recommendations of the Deloitte report”.
Keane also said it was “awful, outrageous” that families of Irish Olympic athletes struggled to secure tickets during the Rio Games, despite reports the OCI had many in reserve, and were providing them to a reselling agent.
Asked about potential travel arrangements should she be elected president, she said, “the one that is most economically efficient, is the way I would put it, because that is also what we ask our coaches and athletes to do”.
The EGM of the OCI, which will include voting of all 34 national governing bodies of sport affiliated to the OCI, takes place at the Conrad Hotel in Dublin on Thursday February 9th.