‘Toxic’ Irish Olympic brand increasingly unrecognisable

The new brand unveiled its first new sponsor on Wednesday as changes continue apace

New faces, new names, new brand, new logo, and now the first of the new sponsors. With each step it seems the former Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) becomes increasingly unrecognisable from the new Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI).

Which of course is both the aim and purpose: the name change, agreed earlier this month, may appear cosmetic but beneath that surface the brand changes are already running deep. The OCI, particularly under the near 30-year era of former president Pat Hickey, is effectively no more.

The last chapter in that controversy is still to be written, the supreme court in Brasília last November agreeing an injunction to suspend the Hickey case, related to ticket touting charges during the 2016 Rio Games. Still no word on if or when that may ever go to trial.

In the over two years since, meanwhile, the Irish Olympic brand – considered “toxic” in the aftermath of Rio – has been getting a steady makeover, beginning with Sarah Keane’s election as new OCI president in February of 2017.

Now just under two years out from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the OFI has announced its first new national sponsor in FBD Insurance. Tokyo Olympic rowing hopefuls Gary and Paul O'Donovan, along with hockey's Chloe Watkins, equestrian's Sarah Ennis and badminton's Nhat Nguyen, were among the athletes at hand at the announcement in Dublin and absent was any of the lingering negativity of the Rio ticketing scandal.

"These are the first sponsors since Rio, and I must say, speaking for the market in general I think generally the change has registered," said Peter Sherrard, who last year became the new chief executive of the OFI, and has been steering many of the changes beneath the surface since.

“I wouldn’t say it’s completely universal, but there is an awareness that things have changed, and things have moved on. You don’t have very many opportunities to change your brand, in any walk of life. We were in a pretty rare situation in that we didn’t have any sponsors, at the time, and had planned it around the Youth Olympics, next month. And it is the opportunity to move forward, and it is an external symbol that we have changed.”

Still there is some distance to go – starting with a new gear sponsor after New Balance declined to renew their contract after Rio: “The sponsorship model that we’ve set up is that we want sponsors that really buy into the process,” said Serrard, “and we’re setting it up so that there will be three top-tier sponsors on a national level, one of those will be a kit sponsor, which we don’t have, FBD, and then one more. But I’ve found since I’ve started there is a huge amount of good will, a good appetite for seeing what can happen, and I won’t deny, the success of the sports this summer has certainly helped.”

The name change, from OCI to OFI, also came with a modernised Olympic crest, which will be sported by the Team Ireland athletes for the first time at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires next month.

“This is a good juncture for us to launch our new identity,” said Sherrard, “We are just under two years out from Tokyo 2020 and we are currently planning a range of initiatives with partners and sponsors to help support the athletes of Team Ireland in the build-up.”

The inspiration for the logo stemmed from the Irish Olympic team kit worn around the time of Ronnie Delany’s gold medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, one of the country’s greatest ever Olympic moments.

In another deliberate change, the OFI is seeking to recruit a full-time Chef de Mission for Team Ireland for both Tokyo 2020 and the European Games in Minsk 2019. Recruitment for the opened last week and will close on Friday the 19th October.

Previously the role of Chef de Mission was recruited internally or on a ‘voluntary’ basis: his is the first time that it is being advertised as a professional stand-alone role, considering the significant workload and meticulous project management skills required. The role involves the co-ordination of Team Ireland’s preparations and participation at the Games.

President of the Olympic Federation of Ireland Sarah Keane said, "The decision of the Executive Committee to appoint our Chef de Mission for Team Ireland as a professional stand-alone role is a significant milestone," said OCI president Sarah Keane. "Coming at a time of ever closer cooperation with Sport Ireland and the Sport Ireland Institute it represents another important building block in Team Ireland's games preparations."

This repeated reference to “Team Ireland” is also by design, aimed at putting the athletes first, and again creating some distance from the former OCI.