Interview: Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey

Irishman at forefront of proposed changes to greatest show on earth

Construction under way at the National Stadium for the Baku 2015 European Olympics. Photograph: Getty Images

Typical of Pat Hickey to answer my first question before he's even asked. Hickey hasn't lasted a quarter of a century – or a record seven terms – as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) without an air of presumption. Nor was he elected onto the 15-member executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by letting down any guards.

"Let me give you a little introduction," he starts, "by saying don't try slip in any question about John Delaney along the way. Not that you would. But we are making no comment. So better we clear the decks on that."

Typical of Hickey. Delaney, as well as being chief executive of the FAI, is also second vice president of the OCI, and whatever embarrassment last week’s fiasco over him singing a Wolfe Tones song might have caused the FAI, it’s clearly not in Hickey’s interest to get involved. Although if it was . . .

Pat Hickey with Simon Clegg, chief operating officer for Baku 2015. Photograph: Becog (Baku European Games Organising Committee).

Turning point

Besides, we’re here to talk about other things. Hickey is on his way to Monaco this weekend for the 127th IOC Session, which may well represent a turning point for the entire Olympic movement. IOC president Thomas Bach, elected last year, has recently drawn up Agenda 20+20, or 40 specific recommendations he believes will better serve the IOC beyond the 2020 Tokyo Games.


Hickey has also been president of the European Olympic Committee (EOC) since 2006, and worked closely with Bach on Agenda 20+20. He's also been driving the first European Olympics, which will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, next June. He's clearly a busy man, although he's just back from a 45-minute run in the Phoenix Park ("I go three or four times a week, and love it") and although he'll also turn 70 next June, his IOC executive membership lasts until he turns 80.

Indeed it’s a wonder Hickey still finds time to serve as OCI president (a voluntary position). He said himself he was likely to step down after the London Olympics in 2012, but instead was re-elected in August, unopposed, for another four-year term. Although it turns out Hickey already has a successor in mind (and it’s not John Delaney).

So what made you go for the OCI presidency again, after indicating you would step down after London 2012?

“I did say that, and London probably will be my last Games as OCI president. Because I probably will bow out before Rio 2016, I’m so busy. I am president of Europe. I’m on the executive board IOC. And I’ve just been made the Czar in charge of autonomy. There are so many disputes worldwide, with governments interfering in the Olympic committees, and of course no better man than me, after what I’ve been through, to solve these disputes.

“And I’m very much involved in delivering another European Games, for 2019. So I will more than likely pass the baton on before Rio. The way it will happen is if I stop between elections, it will go to our first vice president, who is Willie O’Brien, until the election after Rio. So it’s well-known that I will probably, definitely, give up the reins before Rio. But not until the beginning of 2016.”

Are you surprised no one has gone up against you, since Richard Burrows, in the 2001 OCI election (which Hickey won 27-10)?

“No, there was nobody interested, because of my past history. But not only that, but because of what I’m doing. But I did want to bow out, after London, to concentrate on all my other stuff. Still, no one challenged me. But the amount of people who came to me and said no, no there would be chaos, there would be a dog fight, if I left now. They felt we needed an orderly transfer, and I only stayed on, on that basis.

The IOC faces some big decisions in Monaco this weekend, but which recommendations do you think are the priority?

“We’ll have three days of an executive board meeting, then the session itself, on Monday and Tuesday, where all 114 IOC members will vote on all the recommendations. Since Bach came into office, he’s been like a whirlwind, in the way he’s gone through things. He realised there was need for a lot of changes and, as he says, the time to change is when you are in control.

‘40 recommendations’

“So, on that basis, he’s produced 40 recommendations, and probably the biggest one is the way bid cities will treated into the future. The system we have at the moment is very cumbersome, very expensive, with lots of bureaucracy. And a lot of big cities are asking ‘is it worth all this?’ Because at the end of the day there is only winner. There is no gold, silver and bronze. Yet all bid cities end up spending a lot of money.

“We’ve already seen a difficulty with the Winter Games. At this moment, for the 2022 edition, we’ve only two bid cities, Beijing and Almaty in Kazakhstan. All the European bid cities dropped out. There is something drastically wrong here, because Europe is the home of winter sports.”

Is there a sense the Olympics have got too big for their own good?

“Every organisation has to stop and take a look at itself. The Olympic movement has never been more prosperous, or successful, but another important part of the agenda is to stop gigantism. It was getting to the stage where only two or three cities in the world were capable of hosting the Olympics.

“Look at Asia, at the moment. They’ve got the next winter games, in Korea. Then the Tokyo Games, after Rio. Now, for 2024, there will probably be a bid from Rome, and Paris, and a strong US bid as well. The cities bidding for 2024 will still have the old restrictions in place, but that doesn’t mean we won’t sit down with them, because we want to make it easier for everyone to make that bid, and make it less costly.”

Another recommendation is to allow for two cities, or even two countries, to make joint bids for an Olympics, or is that too extreme?

“Not in the slightest. There’s actually been a demand for that over the years. But it was ignored. We were bound by out statutes, so it couldn’t happen. But it this if voted in, we can change our statutes. Say, for example, Liverpool was bidding for the Games, and they didn’t have a velodrome, but there’s a velodrome 40 minutes up the road in Manchester.

“Why should we force Liverpool to build a velodrome? So that’s what we’re getting at. If there are cities near each other like that, same as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, they should be able to share their facilities. The expression we’re using is to ‘tailor-make’ the Games to the city, and be more flexible, because every city is different.”

Could we see yet more sports being added to the Games, like golf, and rugby sevens, have been added for Rio?

“Yes, and already Tokyo 2020 will be allowed to stage baseball and softball. Because that’s a massive sport in Japan. So if there is a sport that is huge in that country, but not part of the Olympic programme, it can be allowed in, to help them market the Games, and raise more sponsorship. It would be stupid not to give them that lift.

"And I'd like to think, but I'm too modest, that when we set out to do the European Olympics, eight years ago, at our EOC assembly in Seville, I laid this out for the future of the Olympic Games. That we would not be a carbon copy of the Olympics, but flexible in sports, and tailor-make the Games for each city."

Which brings us to Baku, next June, and why exactly does Europe need an Olympics of its own, or is it not more about demonstration sports?

“First of all Europe is the only continent without a Games. There’s the Pan-American Games, Asian Games, African Games, Oceanic Games, all of which are hugely successful, all run under their continental Olympic committees.

"The European Games was first proposed by Jacques Rogge (former IOC president), about 16 years ago, but he got fierce resistance from the international federations, because they were all afraid the sponsorship pot would be diluted, by any new Games.

“Then, eight years ago, we put it back to our assembly, after an independent feasibility study, and the European Committee gave us the green light. No one was to know then that Europe would become the sick man of the world, economically wise. Suddenly, there wasn’t a lot of interest to take on the event, and luckily we hit upon Azerbaijan. They had bid twice for the Olympics, but didn’t get past the first round. And they’re also interested in becoming more European.

‘Experimental games’

“We decided to start off with a more experimental Games, with 10 sports. Then there was the big debacle about wrestling coming off the Olympics, then coming back in. Suddenly, lots of other sports felt if they weren’t included in the European Olympics then it would be a black mark against them. So we got swamped by new applications, went from 10 to 20 sports. But we’ve now reached our capacity, with 6,000 athletes, and we had to refuse eight sports.

"Another thing we didn't expect is that of the 20 sports, 11 of them are also qualifying opportunities for Rio. Including men's and women's boxing. So Katie Taylor gets to compete there, and I insisted on that. We know our shortcomings. We don't have athletics as the real deal. We do have a European Athletics Team Championships (third league). And we don't have swimming as the real deal.

“But we are quite confident, that for our next Games in 2019, we will have athletics in as at the full range, and the same with swimming.

“So we’re already full steam ahead for 2019, talking to six host cities in Europe. Most mid-range cities in Europe have the infrastructure for a European Games.”

Might Dublin fall into that category?

“Not in the slightest. We couldn’t even stage a European Youth Olympics. There has been talk of a bid for the Youth Olympics in 2019, or 2021, and if Abbotstown is fully completed by then, in the right way, it might be possible, for a Youth Olympics. But we’re nowhere near a European Games.”

Finally, where do you see our own Olympic preparations, as we’ve now passed the midway point between London and Rio?

"I think we're in a great position because the co-operation has never been better with the Minister for Sport and the Irish Sports Council. We're all working together, respecting their own territory, and all there for the betterment of the athletes. It's the way it should have been for the last 20 years."