THE relationship between Sports Minister Shane Ross and president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Pat Hickey, is not one of equals. Hickey is by far the more important man. It is understandable that the Sports Minister should have misunderstood the relationship. He is the minister, after all. But he has made a mistake in front of an Irish media willing him to fail. Hickey does not have an extensive fan club in the fourth estate, but Ross rode the media tiger for years and devoured all before him. Now, it is eating him and tigers don’t nibble.
In Rio, Hickey is in control and has reason to believe he can be impervious to an Irish sports minister. Unlike the forum of an Oireachtas committee in Dublin, he cannot be tethered to the witness chair.
In any event, he has moved on — gone global. In international sport, he is a very important man, close to the top of the International Olympic Committee. Irish sport may be his home base, and was his spring board, but he is a major player internationally, now. He is one of 15 members of the executive board of the International Olympic Committee, and has been since 2012, and president, since 2006, of the European Olympics Committees.
The international committee is a quasi-state. It carries itself around the world with pretensions of sovereignty. It enjoys the financial foundations of a global corporation. It may be amenable to the views of big commercial sponsors, but not of small countries. Hickey is a case study in how a determined man, from a minority sport — judo — in one small country can climb to the top of the greasy pole, in the sometimes very greasy world of international sport.
Regrettably, Irish sport can be greasy, too. When it’s not, it is nearly always political. Politics within sports organisations is intense, often unpleasant, and never for the faint-hearted. The irony of the comic impotence of a sports minister from this small country is that Hickey’s success is founded on the assiduous cultivation, firstly, of minority sports in Ireland and, then, of smaller or poorer countries elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe. He has the small-time assiduity of an old-time Irish politician and global success that someone like Ross can only look at askance.
One fundamental misunderstanding by the minister is that the Government has a hold over Hickey and the Olympic Committee of Ireland (OCI) because it receives tax-payers’ funds. Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it, which is what Ross is doing now. The OCI does receive some public funds, but they are of limited importance. The largesse of the exchequer has largely been withdrawn. This fact is the source of the minister’s impotence and Hickey’s immunity. It is also a reason for the latter’s ancient animus against Jim McDaid, Ireland’s first sports minister, who was appointed in 1997.
He appointed me as his adviser, so I am not a neutral observer. It was a bumpy, but never dull, ride with Jim, a politician of great heart who would not back down. Historically, sport was a subset of the Department of Education. It funded the OCI, which, in turn, doled out grants to sports organisations to prepare for the Olympics. In terms of sporting facilities then, we were a third-world country. The new cabinet minister inherited enormous expectations and a paltry budget of IR£13m.
Most dressing rooms were behind the nearest ditch and showers were what you got when the weather changed. Money came and structures changed fundamentally. McDaid made decisive interventions, on money and anti-doping, and received implacable enmity as a compliment.
Firstly, he put the Irish Sports Council on a statutory footing and routed funding through it. The OCI queued up in line with everyone else. It permanently broke a previously unassailable powerbase and left wounded pride in its wake. That decision, a major step forward for Irish sport, is the reason Ross has so little influence now. Pat Hickey was once taken on, and beaten, by an Irish sports minister.
In athletics, unbelievably, three national organisations were being funded. In a vintage episode of Irish sports politics, McDaid arrived at Jackson’s Hotel, in Ballybofey, on a Saturday morning to address the AGM of one of those three organisations. He made a lovely speech; in the last paragraph he announced their grant for the following year and in the final sentence stated that it would be their last ever. He made for the door at surprising speed and, after the mother of all rows, a unified body, Athletics Ireland, is the result. The umbrage was such that it was aired on the Late Late Show, with an audience of angry people, who in sporting parlance are referred to as ‘blazers’. Never a dull moment.
Money is power, which is why, in this instance, Ross doesn’t have it. Swimming, and young lives, were devastated by the sexual abuse perpetrated by Derry O’Rourke. The governance of the Irish Swimming Association was shambolic, and the in-fighting that is too usual in many sporting organisations compounded the problem.
Faced with excuses, not solutions, McDaid pressed the nuclear button and suspended all funding for swimming. Good work in local clubs was badly affected and elite athletes especially so. One such elite athlete — an innocent bystander in a scandal he has no part in enabling — is RTÉ’s swimming commentator in Rio, Nick O’Hare. Why were innocent athletes being punished, was the cry taken up on the airwaves. McDaid was determined, pressed on, and a new organisation, Swim Ireland, was the result. In the IOC decision, supported by Pat Hickey, not to place a blanket ban on Russian athletes, you can see the difference in approach between Hickey and McDaid.
It wasn’t the power of the purse, per se, but anti-doping, that was McDaid’s finest hour. He insisted, in the face of virulent criticism, that there was a major problem to be tackled.
Ireland’s finest, we were told, were chaste. He begged to differ and set up an anti-doping unit on a statuary footing. That is all reminiscence now, but it is the moment when the funding and institutional architecture of Irish sport changed fundamentally.
Ross played into Hickey’s hands in Rio. The place for the replay is the Oireachtas sports committee, under Brendan Griffin, TD, not the Public Accounts Committee. In light of the impending judgement in the Angela Keirns case, that would be another Ross mistake. It is the policy committee, not the PAC, that has the legal standing here. Ultimately, the Revenue Commissioners and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission might have the sharpest scalpels to cut through questions surrounding the OCI’s tendering procedures and dealings between Pro 10 and THG.