The tale of Pat Hickey, the OCI and the Rio Olympics

Ian O’Riordan speaks to athletes and OCI team members who were on the scene in Rio

No one will ever know exactly what was going through the mind of Pat Hickey on the morning of August 17th when Brazilian police knocked on his door at the five-star Winsdor Marapendi Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. Except of course for Hickey himself, and that's something he may or may not be someday willing to share.

What unfolded in the immediate aftermath was a frantic and at times furious rush to judgement on Hickey’s character which quickly levelled out at near universal loathing. Hickey, it seemed, didn’t so much divide opinions as unite them, and whatever role he may or may not have played in the ticket touting scandal which had sent the sort of fireworks over the Rio Olympics normally reserved for the Opening Ceremony itself, he was clearly not a popular man.

Within hours of his arrest he'd stepped aside as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), a position he has held largely unchallenged since 1989, winning a record seventh four-year term in 2014; he also stepped aside as an executive member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and as president of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), a position he has held since 2006.

Suddenly, someone who was perceived as one of the most powerful men in Irish sport was fighting to save his name and reputation and everything else came with it. Even given the presumption of innocence – and Hickey’s own claim of there being “no substantive proof of any wrongdoing on my part” – that reputation was fast falling apart.


After spending 11 days and night locked up at Rio's notorious Bangu prison, along with fellow Irish suspect Kevin Mallon, the 71 year-old Hickey was released, partly due to his "critical health"; then, on September 10th, a Rio judge accepted the charges filed by prosecutors against him, of "facilitating ticket-touting, formation of a cartel and ambush or illicit marketing". If found guilty, Hickey could be facing up to seven years in jail.

Now, two months later, he remains in Rio, not under house arrest, but having surrendered his passport under the conditions of his temporary release, is not permitted to leave Brazil. He’s staying at an apartment in the fashionable Leblon Beach district of Rio, paid for by the OCI, with a 10pm curfew, and an order to report to a special Olympic court on the 20th day of each month.

There is no indication yet of a court hearing date, nor is there any deadline to set one, which means Hickey could be waiting several more weeks or even months before being brought to trial.

In the meantime, OCI vice-president Willie O'Brien has assumed the duties, while second vice-president, John Delaney, quickly distanced himself from Hickey, claiming he had "no role whatsoever in this matter". It also emerged last month that Delaney was among those to walk out of a meeting of the OCI executive committee when realising that Hickey was "live" from Rio on the phone of one of the members.

The OCI have since appointed Deloitte to conduct an independent review of its own governance arrangements, while retired High Court judge Carroll Moran is overseeing a State inquiry to establish the "policies, procedure, processes and practices" of ticket distribution adopted by the OCI going back to London 2012. That report was expected next month but Mr Justice Moran has indicated that he will need more time to reach his conclusions. Its publication is now expected next Easter, with an interim report due in November

The OCI received €1.72 million in Government funding in the four-year cycle up to Rio, including €520,000 in the first half of this year alone. As the wait for justice continues, there are strong opinions on what the fallout means not just for Hickey himself but across all Olympic sports in the country.

Ger Hartmann – (Limerick-based physical therapist, member of the OCI medical team)

“Back in 1995 I was working with Sonia O’Sullivan, as her primary physical therapist, when Pat Hickey first invited me onto the OCI medical team, to work with them, for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And the society of chartered physiotherapists went mad.

“And Pat told them ‘I don’t care if he has the qualification or a piece of toilet paper with his name on it. I want him in Atlanta . . . ’ That’s the way he operated, and that was solely for the benefit of Sonia O’Sullivan.

“That’s 20 years ago, and I’ve had a close relationship with Pat in the years since, and my personal experience is of a man who first and foremost has always put the betterment of the Irish Olympic movement, and the representing athletes, as his primary objective.

“I’ve seen how he operates, and I’d say he’s among the most politically astute men I’ve ever seen, and I’d have the great respect for him because of that. And I think there is a side to Pat which I think is contrasting with what the general consensus might be. He’s not liked by many, that’s a fact. I know for years he’s ruffled a lot of feathers, and while he has progressed the OCI, maybe he has pulled his weight a little too much.

“Some people can feel threatened by people who are too cocksure of themselves, and he has wielded the solicitor letter at the blink of an eyelid. People don’t like that. There is that side of the man, no doubt about it.

“But he does considerable work behind the scenes, to find resources, to help athletes make the Olympic team. And to make the IOC executive, you have to be a formidable person to carry that off. Those years of experience can’t be bought. And I never once saw him looking at the monetary side of it. Power, yes, maybe, but if anyone loved the Olympic movement it’s Pat Hickey.

“We’re all looking at the ticket touting allegations, but it hasn’t yet been established as a crime, and to what extent? And yet he’s been demonised, a persona non-gratis. He is power hungry, but his energy and enthusiasm is for sport. Today, I see the OCI as a much more professional set up, because Pat has run it that way. He’s run it from the top down, and whether that has merit or not, and whether he’s governed for too long, he is the most capable person, in that he understood the Olympic movement. In my opinion nobody has the experience, the knowledge, the fundamental understanding of how this machine works.”

Eamonn Coghlan – Three-time Olympian, finishing fourth twice, in 1976 (1,500m) and in 1980 (5,000m)

"When the State inquiry comes out, from Judge Carroll Moran, I think it will definitely shed an awful lot more light on the OCI, and how it conducted its business and its governance for the last 20 to 30 years, under the leadership of Pat Hickey.

"We all have our own various opinions, but I think the way it was run, with an iron first, somewhat of a dictatorship, by Hickey, all that will all come out. Like when I gave my opinion on how I would vote, in the 2001 election, when Richard Burrows ran against him. And while I did not run a campaign against him (Hickey), I did voice my opinion, and he publically criticised me, when he said, 'Coghlan you're only a loser, you voted for a loser, you'll always be a loser, and you'll have nothing to do with the Olympic Council as long as I'm around'.

“So that would be the personal grudge that he had for me, as opposed to disagreeing with any political comment. And I would have been excommunicated from the Olympic movement forever. Did that hurt me? No. I got on with my life. But at the same time, why does one person have the right to exclude many, many people who would have liked to make a contribution to the Olympic movement in Ireland, because of the way he ran the shop in there?

“We don’t know whether Pat Hickey is guilty or not at this point in time, but I think the various reports will be the biggest shake-up for the Olympic movement in Ireland. It’s sad the way it’s coming about, but I think it will help, for the future.

“And I don’t think the process of getting nominated and elected onto the OCI committee was done properly whatsoever. When it came to Sonia getting the chef de mission for London she was also the chosen one, and I commend Sonia being on there, absolutely, but again that was the request of Pat Hickey. So, it was ruled in a dictator way, and I believe that is now going to change.

“You see it as well with the second vice-president, John Delaney. How did John Delaney get on the OCI committee, when soccer in Ireland doesn’t even participate in the Olympic Games? How can Pat Hickey come along and say he (Delaney) is the chosen one, will be the next president of the OCI? That kind of influence and power and dictatorship on the OCI has to end.

"Go back to my era, and the likes of John Treacy: the OCI, in my opinion was basically a travel agent, that came into your life once every four years. The onus on the development of the sport, whether it's athletics, swimming, whatever, was on the national governing body (NGB). In modern times they (NGB) are still the ones responsible, select you for the Olympics, only the OCI then decide whether you go or don't go. I was a victim of that in 1988, for the Seoul Olympics, when I ran the qualifying time, and the OCI turned my nomination down. It was only after public outcry that they had to reverse the decision, and select me.

“So the OCI still come into an athlete’s life once every four years, and their role in developing the sport, and supporting the athlete, is non-existent, in my opinion.”

Sinead Lynch – Olympic Rower, finishing sixth in Rio in the lightweight double sculls final (with Claire Lambe)

“It’s complicated, with athletes being prepared for the Games mostly by the Institute of Sport, and then being looked after by the OCI when at the Games. I think having one organisation like some countries do would make more sense. I would say though that the OCI is very athlete-friendly.

"I felt the OCI were very supportive before the Games. Dermot Henihan (OCI general secretary) travelled to Cork to answer all our questions about Rio and give us advice so that we, the rowers didn't miss any training travelling to Dublin for the day. He also made himself very accessible to us through telephone and email if we had any further questions.

"During the Games Steven Martin (OCI chief executive), Martin Bourke (OCI sports director) and Dermot went out of their way to support us and certainly made my Olympic experience better.

“I’ve met Pat Hickey at a number of events in the past and he has been very pleasant to chat to but I’ve never really had any dealings with him. The ticket controversy did not impact at all on my performance. It was only after I came home and heard about the OCI offices being raided and about our officials from the OCI having their passports taken that I felt some of the ‘Rio magic’ had been taken from my experience.

“The ticket issue didn’t bother me at all. A lot of my friends and family couldn’t afford the trip to Rio so they needed relatively few tickets. If the Games had been in a more accessible location geographically the lack of tickets might have been more of an issue.

“I feel the OCI along with the Institute of Sport have certainly progressed sports in Ireland and the results across a broad range of sports in Rio proved this. The support available to athletes is now much better. I’m unsure how much of the credit Pat Hickey can take for this.

“I do think the charges against him are very serious but I don’t agree with the way he has been treated. It’s wrong to lock up a man of his age with the medical conditions he has in a high security prison with dangerous criminals who have been sentenced for violent crimes.”

Scott Evans – Three-time Olympian in badminton, Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio 2016 (reaching the last 16)

“From an athlete perspective, and speaking with some other Irish athletes in Rio at the time, we feel the OCI only come round once every four years, in the year of the Olympics, maybe the year before. You don’t hear anything from them again for another three years after the Olympics.

“That’s not necessarily negative, that’s just the way it works. Sport Ireland are there all the time, the Institute too. Back in 2008, before the Beijing Olympics, I got some special funding through the OCI, as did a few athletes, to help them on the road.

“And I think things have improved since Beijing, especially this time round, in Rio. I felt the team spirit in the village was better than before, and the OCI were are a part of that, being there. Despite the negative stuff that was going on around the ticket situation. I felt we were one big team this time, and that’s why a lot of us had good results. I felt in Beijing and London we were more like individuals, did your own thing.

“We all knew the ticket controversy was happening, 100 per cent, but no more than what we were reading about. My mum and dad had tried to get tickets, back in May, found none available, which was strange, but through a friend I sourced some. So I had no real negative issues with the tickets.

“No athlete I know has had many dealings with Pat, none I’ve spoken to anyway. Personally, I’d like the OCI to be more involved, if it means providing some funding over the four years. The more support the better for all of us, but that’s another story,

“The OCI have improved since 2008, no question about that. You look at their own sponsorship and funding now. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next, and if he’s not guilty, it’s a whole different ball game. But I think the OCI will move on, keep going in the right direction, whether Pat Hickey is involved or not. I think things will keep improving.

“I wouldn’t be worried for any Olympic sport that it might go the wrong way, whatever happens. I think in the long run it could end up being a positive thing for the OCI.”

Paul Howard – Author and former Sunday Tribune sports writer

“My first ‘run in’ with Pat Hickey was around the time of the 1996 election, when David Balbirnie (the hockey administrator) challenged him for the presidency of the OCI. I was only beginning to learn about Hickey’s power, and he did have power then, because the OCI were the conduit of distributing government for sport, which they later lost, in 1999, to the Sports Council. After that the OCI essentially became a travel agent to the Olympic team.

“I wouldn’t say Pat abused that position, but he used it, very well, to gain favour with the majority of sporting organisations. And they loved Hickey. Apart from the marquee sports, such as athletics.

“But he was also very litigious, very sensitive to any criticism, especially when it came to the confrontational way he went about things. I’d had solicitors’ letters before, as David Walsh calls them ‘the Oscars of our profession’, but with Pat, they were sent to your work and home, and the one I got in 1996 was about 12 pages long. I remember my granny saw it at the time and started crying, thinking I was going to prison.

“But I didn’t feel bullied, because I never sensed they’d go to court. That one letter was quite comical. He’d about 40 alleged libels in a 1,200-word piece, which is impossible. Such as his picture was printed darker than David Balbirnie, which implied he was the ‘shadowy’ figure. I felt it was more about marking my card.

“People use the word dictator about Pat, but he still had to stand for election. The same with the 2001 election, when Richard Burrows ran against him, again Pat won close to a landslide. He played that political game absolutely brilliantly, was incredibly clever when it came to working out the best way to get the votes.

“But all through our relationship, and a lot of it was adversarial, you could still sit down and have a conversation, and he’d compliment you on a piece he was potentially suing you over. I just never felt he loved or was knowledgeable or even moved by about sport.

“It seemed to me that he just loved the politics, loved the power, in that world of men who love wearing blazers and slacks with a crease down the front, going off to foreign conferences. That turns a lot of people on. It’s just a personal ego thing.

“It’s hard to see what good he’s done for Irish sport, except for maybe some of the smaller federations, who felt the world of him, but I think he was mostly divested of power 20 years ago. I wouldn’t say he’s even in the top-20 most powerful men in Irish sport. There are civil servants with more power in Irish sport. He just had the profile, was so bombastic and belligerent, and he loved that limelight too.

“What I still can’t figure out is why they went for him, given IOC members are considered royal game, as if they had diplomatic immunity. If he is convicted, this story will be about personal greed, and it won’t be a bad thing for the OCI is Pat Hickey is no longer a part of it. Still I wouldn’t feel human if I didn’t feel sorry for the man. But he did make my granny cry.”

Bryan Keane – Olympic triathlete, one of only 55-worldwide qualifiers for Rio, where he finished 40th

“With Triathlon Ireland we always try to be as self-sufficient and prepared as possible when at such events. For example Triathlon Ireland had visited the OCI holding camp in Uberlandia in 2015 and found it wasn’t suitable for our needs of swimming biking and running so in the end they (Triathlon Ireland) organised our own training camp in Florida which we had used before. This was our holding camp for Rio.

“I also didn’t need to get any medical support from the OCI while at the Olympics Games, as Triathlon Ireland had its own support team and physio, etc, in place at the Games.

“I didn’t have any direct dealings with Pat Hickey. I did receive assistance from the Olympic Solidarity Fund from the IOC through the OCI which helps athletes from minority sports and smaller nations with financial assistance to get to the Games.

“The ticket controversy didn’t impact on my Games as I was focused on performance. Any tickets I used during the Games, I bought with my own money and didn’t approach the OCI for tickets. And as I wasn’t in the country when most of this broke I couldn’t really comment on the media coverage.

“Athletes only come in to contact with the OCI once every four years and they don’t have much interaction with the day to day running of the sport which is handled by Sports Ireland and our NGBs. So I don’t feel I am in a position to answer whether or not the OCI has helped progress Olympic sport in Ireland in recent years and if so, does Pat Hickey deserve some credit for this.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics