Seán Kelly: Governance of Irish sports now needs to change for the better

Such a pity events that have nothing to do with the great athletes of Team Ireland will cast a shadow over Irish Sport in 2016, writes Seán Kelly.

The past few weeks have had a certain bittersweet feel for those involved or interested in Irish sport.

While the Olympic Games in Rio were not without their controversies, those of us who keenly follow Irish sport were still treated to some absolutely historic moments which will live long in the memory.

The moment the wonderful O’Donovan brothers from Skibbereen stormed home to win a first Olympic rowing medal for Ireland; Dublin sailor Annalise Murphy overcame the disappointment of fourth in London to take her place on the podium; the great Waterford man, hurdler Tom Barr, came within a whisker of a bronze medal, setting a new national record twice in the process; diver Oliver Dingley performed superbly to reach an Olympic final.

And of course, there was the 36-year-old Rob Heffernan who finished sixth in the 50k walk to take his fourth top 10 finish in his five Olympics.

All Olympians filled us with joy, pride and admiration.

Yet, sadly, when we look back on the Rio Games in years to come, events that have nothing to do with the great athletes of Team Ireland will somewhat cast a shadow over Irish Sport in 2016. That is unfortunate — not only for the athletes themselves but for all of us who roared them over the finish line enthusiastically from our living rooms, offices and local pubs.

The banishment of Michael O’Reilly for failing a drug test begged many questions, not least: why was he allowed to go to Rio in the first place?

The misfortunes of the other boxers, seen as our best prospects for medals, continued as one by one they were either unluckily defeated, underperformed, or cheated.

The AIBA more or less admitted this when referees were stood down in the middle of the Games, probably as a result of Michael Conlon’s outburst after his controversial defeat — this was extraordinary and clearly, there are issues which must be eradicated — a difficult task!

However, the arrests of Pat Hickey and Kevin Mallon over alleged ticket touting has sent shockwaves through the world of Irish sport. There is a sense of national embarrassment about the whole. That the most coverage our country got internationally at the Olympic Games was over the arrest of a sports administrator does nothing for our national pride. I do, however, think the way in which the arrest was conducted, with cameras present, raises questions about Brazilian police operations.

Indeed the Brazilians seemed to be delighted with this ‘diversion’ and the manner of Hickey’s arrest and subsequent jailing raises many questions about ‘due process’, ‘presumption of innocence’ and ‘public trials’ which need to be addressed at international level and procedures agreed to.

These are issues I intend raising at European Parliament level — whether people like a person or not (and top administrators are there to be knocked more than loved), there have to be standards and procedures.

However, the charge of corruption in sports administration is not new. Maybe it is due to us all having been through the Russian doping scandal a few months ago, or the arrest of the Fifa officials on charges of corruption last year, but while the embarrassment at the unfolding situation was evident around Ireland, the lack of surprise among Irish people that this had happened was worrying.

I think it is sad that trust in our organisations has sunk so low. That said, one positive that may come from all of this — regardless of what happens in Brazil in the coming months — is that it presents an opportunity to reflect on how our sporting organisations are run. It now gives us the opportunity to look at the ways in which these organisations are governed, and put in place strong and transparent frameworks that will help us restore the trust of the Irish people in the organisations that govern the games they love to watch and play.

I am heavily involved in the Parliamentary Sport Intergroup in which a cross-party group of MEPs regularly get together to discuss important issues effecting sport, mainly in terms of EU policy and regulation.

In modern times, the financial stakes in sports have risen and this has put sport at a greater risk of corruption. This all highlights the need for better run organisations and more transparency in the administration of sports. One of the topics that is constantly at the forefront of our discussions in Brussels is good governance, which essentially is laying out a set of standards and practices that will bring about effective regulation in sport.

In Ireland, good governance in sport should be at the forefront of our agenda given what has happened in Brazil. Ensuring that such standards and practices are in place would help to focus our organisations onto the most important aspect or their roles — the development of the sport.

As founding executive chairman of the Institute of Sport, I have come to know and dealt with many of the leading administrators in sport today.

Good governance is essential for all organisations and it’s clear that while much progress has been made, much more remains to be done to ensure high standards. So what would this entail?

First of all, organisations must have clarity on what their purpose is, and there should be effective oversight to ensure that objectives are achieved.

Secondly, a code of ethics should be developed which is binding to all involved in the organisation — this code will inform the conduct of the organisation.

Thirdly, there should be clarity on the role of presidents, chairpersons and boards, and also clarity over what powers they possess.

Additionally, and crucially, I think more democratic processes and inclusive practices need to be integrated. Sporting organisations must have free, fair and regular elections of board members and presidents. There should be limits on the number of terms a person is allowed to hold such a position — we should no longer have a situation where someone can sit in a role for 20 and 30 years. There needs to be regular refreshing of the decision-making bodies — something we cannot say for a number of Irish sporting organisations. There has to be a clear maximum term in office for CEOs, presidents, as well as other members of boards. There isn’t much point in limiting the term of the ordinary members of the board if the key personnel, CEO and President can continue ad infinitum.

One of the problems in Ireland is the Olympics are only held every four years and the OCI has little engagement with the athletes in the intervening years when other competitions take place.

Therefore, our organisations should seek to better involve their grassroots and stakeholders. There should be minimum levels of representation for such members at board level as these are the ones who are on the ground and can see what is required for the development of the sport. In the case of the Olympic Council of Ireland, perhaps it would be refreshing to have dedicated seats on the board for athletes currently competing, who could offer their perspectives on where better work can be done, or where additional resources are needed.

Their insights would surely carry as much, if not, more weight than those of the long-time administrators and would go a long way to keeping athletes and the OCI closely in touch with one another on a regular basis, rather than once every four years. However, the government, as the major financier of all these organisations and individuals, must insist on radical reform if funding is to continue at current levels.

How we go about all of this is another thing — the people who we need to agree to change the way our organisations are governed are the ones who are sitting comfortably in their positions.

However, we need to go back to basics and look at the reason we have these organisations in the first place — to develop their sports in Ireland and to give as many people as possible the opportunity to participate, and perhaps compete at the highest level.

I’m certain we have plenty more young Irish Olympians in the making out there, learning their trade and improving continuously. I think we owe it to our young sportspeople to ensure the organisations that govern them are properly run from top to bottom and that they are given the best chance possible to succeed. Good governance will help in this regard.

Despite all the negativity, lack of trust, and scepticism in the aftermath of the Rio controversies, the outlook is positive. With the spotlight now firmly on Irish sport, and allegations of corruption being thrown around everywhere, sporting organisations may have no choice but to take a step back, look at how they operate, and ensure the principles of good governance are implemented. I certainly hope they will.


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