Pat Hickey: Godfather of Olympic Council of Ireland falls from grace

Ultimate insider Pat Hickey could face up to seven years in jail on ticket touting charges

Not long after the sailors had returned to the beach at Gloria marina, a celebratory photograph was taken that would, by the following morning, seem like an emblem of another time. It was significant because it marked a fleeting union between Ireland’s political, administrative and sporting representatives in Rio. And in a curious way, it caught, in essence everything that is wonderful and everything that is warped about Irish sport.

In the centre stands Annalise Murphy, wreathed in a tricolour, plainly delighted at having navigated her way through the last of 11 highly pressurised races in the Laser Radial sailing event to become just the fourth ever woman to win an Olympic medal for Ireland. It was a moment of dizzying success for the popular Rathfarnham woman: her day of days.

To her right smiles Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross. And on her left is Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) president Pat Hickey. It turned out to be his last public appearance, the last photograph in a vast collection before a bomb was detonated underneath his life's work of shrewd navigation through the minefield of Olympic administration.

Murphy was and is a perfect example of the quiet, unremarked valour that is buried underneath the surface effort for which we applaud Irish athletes during the glamorous fortnight of the Olympics. Most of the Irish Olympians are stoics, Murphy included. Few of us outside the sailing fraternity would have seen her sail since her last Olympic venture, on a cruel day in Weymouth when she was edged into fourth place in the final race. Murphy shed tears on television, the nation sighed and then she moved back into the shadow land where all exemplars of Irish fringe sports – those outside Gaelic games, golf, rugby and football – get on with things.


Ireland’s rowers, gymnasts and many of its athletes and boxers strive for excellence on grants that range from modest to penurious, rarely coming to widespread public notice and never complaining about that. Murphy’s silver medal was a triumph of four years of almost entirely private and assiduous training and racing and bettering herself. When she won, the politician and the OCI president shimmered into being and put on a show of harmony.

During his brief stay in Rio, Ross gave a performance that could at best be described as that of the amicable bumbler. It was arguably mere misfortune that Ross's Twitter account dispatched an automated good luck message to boxer Katie Taylor several hours after she had suffered a traumatic defeat.

It was also undeniably careless and betrayed a cavalier attitude towards someone who had established herself as one of the most significant and successful Irish sportspeople ever. The slight wasn’t cruel or malicious and provoked an endless stream of replies, some funny, some cutting. But it did symbolise a sense that Taylor’s moment in these Olympics didn’t matter to Ireland’s Government representative beyond an opportunity to get out a good-vibes message.


And if Taylor, one of Ireland's best medal hopes didn't matter, what did that say about the rest of the Irish Olympic team? The answer probably came when Ross landed in Dublin airport and publicly congratulated "Thomas Barry" (twice) on a magnificent run in the 400 metres hurdles. He was thinking of Waterford's Thomas Barr but it was another clanger; harmless in isolation but hardly illustrative of a sports minister who'd spent his flight time to and from Brazil intensely poring over this portfolio of Irish athletes, the people who are supposed to matter in this whole extravaganza.

In Ross’s defence, he had just returned from an exhausting flight from Rio and, in bureaucratese, his head was fried. Ross’s hasty departure from the Olympics was an attempt to scramble resources at home in Dublin in order to deal with the legal and procedural ramifications of Hickey’s arrest. The bare skeleton report of what had transpired at breakfast time at the International Olympic Council (IOC) hotel on avenue Lucio Costa was shocking and sensational in itself.

The Windsor Marapendi is not the sort of establishment accustomed to hosting early-morning police raids on its guests. Minutes after the police had departed with Hickey, a photograph was taken of the Prince of Denmark and the King of Sweden in the lobby. It’s that kind of place.

Hickey’s arrest, escorted from his hotel bedroom wearing only a bath robe, and subsequent hospitalisation for chest pains – and the daft speculation that he had tried to manufacture an escape – sent what had already been an incendiary Irish Olympics into a vortex of weirdness.

For almost three decades, Hickey had carried himself with a bulletproof veneer. Rio was supposed to be the victory lap on an unimpeachable career as a highly skilled IOC courtier.

Nobody could have imagined that the much-maligned Rio police would have the effrontery to march into the inner sanctum of the IOC’s private chambers and issue charges against one of the most respected members of its “family”. So they saved everyone the bother of trying to, permitting a film crew to film the episode. Within hours, footage of the OCI president retreating to his bathroom in a state of undress after answering his door to police officers and a film crew was, to quote the brothers O’Donovan, “shpirallin’ on the Interweb”.

Since Wednesday morning, everything and nothing has happened. Hickey was released from hospital and escorted to a police station on Thursday afternoon, the journey marked by a photograph of the Irish man in silhouette, sitting in a wheelchair. Nobody had ever associated the word “frail” with Hickey before, least of all the man himself. He had always evinced an ebullient, restless energy; he was always “on”. Yesterday morning, it was announced that he had been refused bail.

He faces a grave litany of charges: ‘facilitating touting, forming a cartel and of illicit marketing’, offences that carry up to seven years’ prison time in Brazil. Hickey is 71 years old and was about ready to step down from the Olympic Council of Ireland presidency. He was thrust into a dizzyingly bleak place.

The Olympic movement has always made liberal use of the idea of itself as a “family”, but its response to Hickey’s hour of crisis brought to mind the more ominous connotation of the word. The official response of the IOC was magisterial in its inertia. At Wednesday morning’s daily media briefing in Olympic Park, there was a huge media attendance and the hour-long session opened with a barrage of questions concerning Ireland’s IOC member and the arrest and the committee’s response.

Mark Adams's official title is communications director of the IOC but his actual job is as one of the most skilled and nerveless bomb-disposal experts on the earth. Day after day he fields highly volatile questions about the many flaws and hypocrisies of the Olympic movement and makes them safe with replies that belong to the realm of Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister: an immaculate line of elegant obfuscation and delegating responsibility delivered with endless patience. He is never, ever, ruffled.

In a way, Adams said nothing about Pat Hickey and that said everything. Even as he calmly reminded those gathered of Hickey’s entitlement to the presumption of innocence; as to the lack of clarity over the precise nature of the charges; over the fact that, really, it was a matter for the Olympic Council of Ireland, you could actually see the gap forming and then widening between the Irish man and the other family members of the IOC executive. It was a distancing that was achieved with frightening swiftness.


Suddenly, Hickey was being thrust back into the arms of his national Olympic committee, the Olympic Council of Ireland. But for years, everyone in Ireland believed that Hickey was, in essence, the Olympic Council of Ireland. So now that he found himself embroiled in the Brazilian legal system, his passport and Olympic credentials displayed like badges at Wednesday morning’s police press conference, who was going to look out for him?

There was no strenuous advocacy from the IOC for Hickey’s record over two decades of voluntary service to the family. There was no criticism of the deeply invasive and humiliating circumstances of the arrest procedure nor the speed with which the film appeared on social media sites, to be shared a gazillion times. At Thursday morning’s daily briefing, some of the media people present were referring to Hickey as “the naked guy” as convenient shorthand in an Olympics that had become crowded with bizarre occurrences.

So the neutral stance of the IOC towards Hickey’s crisis, communicated through its unflappable spokesperson, was one vast glacier of indifference.

It was clarified that Hickey had, from his hospital bed, temporarily stepped down from all of his Olympics roles, which Adams evenly asserted was “his prerogative”. Relinquishing his place on the IOC executive meant Hickey would no longer receive his $900 per diem. It’s a mind-boggling daily allowance at a sports festival in which the people employed to clean the athletes’ village receive €1.40 per hour. This was the Olympics: the grotesque inequality of the world in microcosm.

In Dublin, Ross announced that an internal Olympic Council of Ireland enquiry concerning the abuse of ticketing wouldn’t cut it. A hasty missive was dispatched from the OCI offices to say the body would co-operate with any State enquiry into its ticket handling.

Ross had tried to have that conversation with Hickey in Rio and was apparently taken aback with the blunt dismissal he received. Like many of his predecessors, the Minister was put straight on who did and who did not run the Irish Olympic movement. That conversation became irrelevant once Hickey submitted himself to the Brazilian authorities.

“Shell shock here in Rio” was the initial reaction on Ross’s Twitter account. It was another odd moment: a banal newspaper headline of a response by a Government Minister to a moment of acute crisis for a major player in Irish sport.

For all the powerful allies and acquaintances that Hickey cultivated in his decades of functions, of meetings, of silver service, he was merciless in his response to domestic challenges to his OCI chattel. Since becoming president in 1989, he overshadowed the actual body he represented through force of personality and the influence he had acquired within the international Olympic movement. He was instinctively sharp and street-smart and clearly brilliant at parlaying an unpromising starting position – an obscure judo practitioner in a peripheral Olympic member nation – into what he did. Like many successful Irish people, he could play the emerald card masterfully.

"Ireland is loved because we were never a colonial power and we never did the do-do on anybody," he told Malachy Clerkin for an interview at the Sochi winter Olympics two years ago. "All the bigger countries hate each other: the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Brits; all that stuff. And Paddy is there in the middle surfing along and finding his way. When I was up for re-election in November, nobody opposed me. President of Europe makes me a senior vice-president of the world body."

It is possible to envisage from that assertion the nimbleness and adroitness with which Pat Hickey moved through the nuanced, wheeler-dealing world of votes gathering and friendships that is everything, everything, when it comes to who wins and who loses the real games in the world of the Olympics. Here is Hickey at that same luncheon talking about Ireland's prospective bid to host the Rugby World Cup.

"I had dinner with Bernard Lapasset the other night and he spoke to me about the Wold Cup bid. And I had dinner two nights ago with him, as well as the president of European rugby, who's a Romanian and the president of Asian Rugby who's a Japanese. The next World Cup's in Japan. They were all asking me about the bid, but I didn't know an awful lot about the set-up.

“Like, I knew the government had announced they were going to put a bid together but I tell you, they’d want to get their f***ing act together if they are going to get the votes. You don’t just get this by saying: ‘we’re beautiful Ireland.’ The word around the table is that there will be huge opposition from Argentina, who are going all out to get the tournament, and there will be huge opposition from South Africa who want it again and who have full government support.

" I spoke to a guy from the Argentinian Olympic Committee who is like the Smurfit of Argentina, and I asked him how serious the bid was, because the economy of Argentina is reduced as well. And he said it's a government priority. The Pumas are loved there and they've never had anything like this; they're very determined. So then I phoned Michael Ring because, you know, I wanted to help out. And Michael said it's not clear yet how everything's going to work out but they're confident enough.

“But I don’t know if they realise that there are 98 votes around the world that they are going to have to get. This Romanian president of European rugby told me in Europe there are 28 votes. Those votes are in Georgia, Romania, Moldova and their votes are worth the same as England’s, as France’s, as all the big countries.

“I don’t think the people in charge of the Irish bid have taken this into account. I’ve smelt a danger there that is going to be political. If they want me to help, I’ll help them.”

Big picture

It is much too long to carve into stone as an epitaph, but there could be no more illuminating passageway into Hickey’s world: acquiring the big picture through a thousand small conversations, the endless enthusiasm for fine dining, the compulsion to hunt delegates’ votes as if they were Pokemon Go figures; the patient courting of the small countries to get big results. The glittering sharpness is evident in that brief summary of just one night in his Olympic life. If Hickey treated a succession of Irish sports ministers – including, it seems, Shane Ross – as if he believed they were lightweights, that’s because he did.

He didn’t just see up close the great wheels of sport and politics turning, the subtle exchanges that ultimately lead to global moments like Rio; he believed that he had learned how to manipulate them.

There are plenty of people in Ireland who got into rows with Pat Hickey and lost who must have waited for this week. The filming of his arrest, particularly given his state of undress, was an unnecessary invasion of privacy; a cruel degradation. As the Olympics reaches its celebratory closing weekend and his friends on the IOC executive pack their luggage and prepare for the closing ceremony and the last of six-course dinners, it remains unclear when Pat Hickey, detained for now in Bangu penitentiary, will be leaving Rio.

Whether or not he is found guilty of the charges the Rio police have presented him with, his era as the godfather of the Irish Olympic movement is surely over. He became the voice and face and power of the Irish Olympics when Charles J Haughey was Taoiseach. It is that long ago.

He is smiling in the photograph, as he did through those days in Barcelona, in Atlanta, in Sydney, in Athens, in Beijing, in London, the constant presence, impervious to changes in government, on the calendar, in the world. By then, the Brazilian police had already begun finalising his plans to snatch him out of that world.

Maybe behind the smile, Pat Hickey had an intimation that he had made the oldest and simplest mistake. He had stayed on too long.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times