Pat Hickey, president of the Irish Olympic Committee who stepped side temporarily yesterday, was described recently as “Teflon Man” but he will need the slipperiness of an eel to slide out of his latest brush with controversy.
At risk are his national presidency but equally his presidency of the European National Olympic Committee, his membership of the International Olympic Committee, his honorary presidency of the Irish Judo Federation and his role as founding father of the European Games.
In other word, the pyramid of sporting offices Hickey has shrewdly and ruthlessly built up in the 40 years since he was merely a black belt at judo competing for Ireland.
Hickey did not make an enormous impact as a judoka but the former auctioneer from Phibsboro has been Ireland’s most successful player of the game of international sporting politics since Lord Killanin stepped aside as IOC president in 1981.
Hickey has made friends in high places far beyond the reach of those in the smaller sporting federations in Ireland he embraced to get his first foot on the ladder.
He sat with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Baku when his brainchild of a European Games was held there, and embraced by Azerbaijan dictator IL ham Aliyev.
Until last week he was on the all-powerful executive board of the IOC, one of the giants of the Olympic movement.
He created his power-base within the EOC, which represents all European Olympic committees, when the Irish Olympic Council hosted its general assembly in 1991 just as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
He networked among the 14 new independent countries and established a following in Eastern Europe.
Yet there have always been a sense within Olympic circles Hickey’s wheeling and dealing pushes close to the high moral boundaries. Trouble has followed him from way back.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, his row with the Irish athletics authority BLE over sponsored kit led to Sonia O’Sullivan having to change in the tunnel of the Olympic Stadium just before she was scheduled to race.
Two Irish Sports Ministers have fallen out with him. He called one, Bernard Allen, ‘the Fuhrer”. The other, Jim McDaid, called him “divisive, disruptive and confrontational”.
But while they have come and gone, Hickey has beaten off every challenge. In 2001 when sailing’s Richard Burrows stood for the president of the OCI against him with the support of several famous Irish Olympians, Hickey saw him off with a landslide victory.
But his opponents have not been only in his homeland. In 2012, when he was a member of the IOC’s Coordination Commission for the Rio Games, a Brazilian senator and former football star, Romario, requested the country’s Minister of Sport to investigate Hickey.
The IOC saw to it that it was quietly forgotten. That claim against Hickey then was also about ticketing. Romario accused him of “influence peddling”.
Then when Hickey persuaded the dictatorship of Azerbaijan to host his foundling brainchild, the European Games, he dismissed the public concerns of Amnesty International and the European Union that it would be seen as supportive of the country’s dreadful human rights record.
One respected Irish sports writer, who wrote in less than glowing terms about the OCI, was told by Hickey by phone if he wanted Olympic accreditation in future he should lay off.
Then a few weeks ago on Irish radio he identified the city in which the whistle-blowing Russian athletes Sepanovs were living, one of the factors that forced them to move to a different hideout.
The IOC do not act with speed on issues of alleged corruption among its membership. One recent member suspended was allowed to continue in membership for two years while he fought the charges against him in the courts.
Indeed, not one IOC member has been expelled since 2004 when a Bulgarian was found guilty by its Ethics Commission of offering his vote on Olympic city hosting for sale.
So again Hickey, facing charges which carry a maximum sentence of seven years, could be free to continue his ride on the Olympic gravy-train while the case runs its course through the protracted Brazilian legal system.
Like the Russian athletes Hickey supported to compete in Rio with his final vote on the IOC executive board, he may even get another chance to play the political game.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved