The Big Interview: Pat Hickey is still the ringmaster

In the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot more about him, the European Olympics and Baku.

You hardly seem to see him now.

There was a time when Pat Hickey was on Prime Time and the front pages as prominently and frequently as John Delaney, whatever about Sepp Blatter, but these days he is comfortable being a merely influential figure than a controversial one.

As he courteously cooperates with this paper’s photographer outside Olympic House on the main Howth promenade, several twentysomethings pass by. There’s no comment, no sign of recognition or even curiosity from them concerning the man worthy of such photographic attention.

You can be sure that if it were Delaney that was standing where he is now, they’d have noticed: ‘Hey, is that your man?!’ or ‘Hey, it’s your man!’ You could be certain too if it were 10 or 15 years ago people of a similar demographic would have known who Pat Hickey was.

It’s not that he’s aged; he might be 69 now but he’s a fresh and vibrant one, thanks to his frequent workouts in his neighbouring Phoenix Park that help make his appearance approximate to what it was when he was so publicly visible over a decade ago.

Perhaps it’s that he’s mellowed, or at least his confrontational streak has, as has that of his opponents, to the point some of them like John Treacy he would now describe as “good buddies”.

So does he miss the rows, the recognition, the notoriety? “I get worried now — no one’s attacking me!” he laughs. “I really do! I wake up some days: ‘How come I’m not in the papers anymore?’ They seem to be saying ‘Leave Hickey alone, he’s gone quiet now.’ But I’m more than happy with that.” Within the international Olympic movement though, he’s been far more prominent over the last decade or so. And in the coming weeks, he’ll be taking centre stage in the public view again.

On Friday week, as president of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), he will declare the opening of the inaugural European Olympic Games in a 68,000 capacity Olympic National Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan.

It’ll feature everything from Katie Taylor looking to secure Olympic qualification to beach football, the triathlon and 3x3 basketball. This is his baby, or as he puts it himself, his “legacy”.

He’ll qualify that. It wasn’t his brainchild. It was first floated about 20 years ago when Jacques Rogge, a later IOC president, was chief of the European Olympic movement. After all, every other continent seemed to have their own games: the Pan-American games, the Asian Games, the African Games.

But there was resistance to a European equivalent. The European sporting calendar was jammed — as it still is — with the big international federations quite happy having their own championships to determine the continent’s best. They were also afraid a multi-sport event would dilute their own sponsorship drawing power. It faded away to the point of being dead.

That is, until Hickey assumed the presidency of the EOC and commissioned a feasibility study. It showed it was a runner and soon most of the European assembly decided it was worth a try.

“One of the reasons we felt there was a case for it was because Europe could do with a multi- sport event,” he says from his seat in the Olympic Council of Ireland’s offices that has a view of Howth Head in the distance.

“There was a time Europe typically used to win 70% of the medals at the summer Olympics. By London, that had dropped to 46%.

“That obviously meant that other continents were getting better, which is great for sport. But at the same time it indicated Europe was slipping. You go to a European championships in gymnastics or volleyball and you’re surrounded by only athletes from that sport. There was no multisport event in Europe that would give athletes a similar experience ahead of a summer Olympics itself.” Bit by bit, not least by his persistence and considerable charm, sports and federations have come on board for Baku 2015. Major sponsors were won over too.

Initially Hickey and the EOC were going to go with just 10 events. But like a restaurant with some occupied tables by the front, it quickly filled up.

Sports like wrestling that wanted to ensure their retention at the summer Olympics signed up for the European Olympics. Now the Olympic village will be full to capacity with 6,000 athletes, from 20 different sports, 12 of which are using the competition as qualifiers for Rio. Seven other sports tried to get in and had to be told there was no more room; come back again in a few years’ time.

Already, he’s planning for European Olympics beyond Baku. Amsterdam is all but assured of securing the 2019 Games. European Athletics has promised him it will have a greater presence at those games; in Baku the athletics is refined to essentially the third league of the European team championships.

When you’ve been around for as long as Hickey, you see the bigger picture, you play the longer game.

Athens, for example, was ‘only’ 11 years ago. In 11 years’ time, he should be in his final year as an executive member of the International Olympic Committee. By then he would hope — expect — some of the major international federations to run their own European Championships at the European Olympics.

What he won’t be by then is president of the Olympic Council of Ireland. He’ll actually be stepping down from that role before Rio (first vice-president Willie O’Brien will succeed him, and then afterwards he envisages second vice-president, one John Delaney, taking it on while still holding down his job with the FAI). After first assuming the position in 1988, he’s leaving it on his own terms, in his own good time: no one else’s.

He takes a certain pride, even delight, in that and all the scraps he had and survived and won.

You have to remember where he comes from, his sport. He was a black belt in judo, represented Ireland on the international stage for years. Even up to his mid-40s he was happy enough to tussle on the floor until he felt it was no longer good for the bones. After that, he was more than happy to tussle with anyone in a committee room.

There were a lot of Ministers for Sport and various heads of the Irish Sports Council that have passed through the years while he stood his ground.

Some he liked. Frank Fahey. John O’Donoghue (“A much-maligned man but a great sports minister”). Leo Varadkar (“A brilliant sports minister. We were sorry to lose him. Very hands on, knew what he was doing, could make decisions”). The current junior minister Michael Ring (“Another great guy, very dedicated”).

Some he didn’t warm to and the feeling was mutual. Bernard Allen, by virtue of establishing the Irish Sports Council, was the first to challenge him to change. Jim McDaid said straight up either Hickey had to change or he’d be changed. “Guys like him,” Hickey grins, “felt they could run the world. ‘I’m a big minister, you do what I tell you.’ It doesn’t work like that. My constituency is different.” There were other perceived threats, even enemies. He claims Tony O’Reilly was seriously miffed and wanted the spot on the IOC that Hickey was granted 20 years ago upon the late Lord Killanin’s recommendation; in Hickey’s view, that would explain why he was so often featured and criticised in the papers O’Reilly owned at the time.

For years, there were ongoing clashes with the Irish Sports Council, especially its chief executive John Treacy. The government wanted the ISC to designate funding for sports and athletes. To Hickey that was a breach of the Olympic charter and a basic function of the OCI. “It was a big issue as to who was over sport. So daggers were drawn, positions were taken and then after Sydney 2000 made a full-out attack to get rid of me.” It was then and there that people realised that, to quote Aaron Sorkin or Jack Nicholson, they were messing with the wrong marine.

Richard Burrows, the highly-credible businessman from Irish Sailing, ran against him for the OCI presidency with considerable political backing. “I told Richard because I liked Richard, ‘You’re being used. Forget about it. You’ve no chance.’” So it proved: Hickey with his power base would win the showdown hands down, 27-10.

But as Hickey himself admits, things couldn’t go on like this. After every Olympics, from Atlanta to Athens, it seemed to be the same old story: dissent among the blazers and disillusionment among the athletes. Treacy and himself began to accept and appreciate that the other was a fact of life, with even the potential to be a force for good.

Hickey says there was another wobble around the time of Ossie Kilkenny’s chairmanship of the Sports Council — “He took a very aggressive stance to me, ‘Do what I tell you’ kind of attitude, but then he left.” Since Kieran Mulvey assumed that chair, relations have been smooth and convivial, much like Mulvey himself.

“He’s been a breath of fresh air. I never knew Kieran Mulvey from Adam but he met me in his first few days in the position and said, ‘Pat, whatever baggage there is on both sides, let’s put it aside and get on together for the sake of Irish sport and Irish athletes. We’re going to get on.’ And I said, ‘Kieran’s that’s great. We fully accept that the Sports Council is the government arm of running sport. There’s room for all of us as long as you don’t encroach on our patch and we won’t encroach on yours. We can help each other.” He acknowledges the role of others in harmonising relations. OCI chief executive Stephen Martin struck up a good rapport with Treacy; likewise OCI vice-president Willie O’Brien with the Sports Council’s Finbarr Kirwan. Paul McDermott of the ISC could work with anyone. So too Gary Keegan when he was appointed director of the newly-established Institute of Sport. Through the environment and structures they created, a greater awareness and tolerance of each other’s strengths and roles unfolded.

It has to be said, Hickey was part of the solution too. He wasn’t for moving but he was for changing. He changed. He might have reluctantly at first, but he changed.

“We got less aggressive and we stopped seeing any initiative as a ploy,” he accepts. “We used to examine it and think ‘This is some kind of trick to get back at us, there’s a sting in the tail here for the OCI.’ So we had to change the mindset.” You mean you had to change your own mindset? “Definitely. I’d become less defensive. Recognise that some of the things they were proposing were valid. I’d maybe been putting up the shutters without receiving or seeing the bigger picture.” You can see why Hickey’s survived for so long in the Irish sports political scene and has worked his way up so high on the international stage. He’s highly charming, affable. He uses your name liberally throughout the whole conversation. He shows you around the highly-impressive offices of the OCI and its many framed photographs and has an engaging anecdote for each one. For all his pressing schedule and all we’ve to cover in our interview, he makes time to ask about your own background and interests.

As for his own, he loves running through the Phoenix Park four or five times a week. “I couldn’t stay alive without that,” he says. “It clears my head. It’s where I do all my thinking. Christmas Day in the snow, Stephen’s Day, even in the worst despairing moments when McDaid and the world was attacking me, I’d go there.” At home, he likes nothing better than plopping in front of the TV and watching a documentary or a boxset. He watched all of Love/Hate: cue your own quip about comparisons between him and Nidge & Co. He loves films but hasn’t time to watch them in the cinema: instead he waits until he’s on the plane. The last one he watched was the war film Fury. “Brad Pitt was in it. Tough in places but great story.” Everywhere he goes he brings his Kindle. He reads heavily but not heavy material. You might think he’d read the biographies of politicians for insights as to how they rolled but that’s not how he rolls. Thrillers and whodunits are more his thing. Escapism is what he seeks; the brain is tested enough as it is.

The politics of sport is the biggest fun and games of the lot for him. You’ve to remember: all these roles in the OCI and IOC and EOC and more are completely voluntary.

The day job was in the auctioneering and insurance business. He won’t lie, his involvement in the Irish Olympics got people in the door, but he’d to still keep them then. Nowadays Hickey Auctioneers is run by his daughter Corine and eldest son Fred but he’s a long way from retiring from the politics of sport.

He’s some experience in it now. Not so long ago the IOC had a reputation much like Fifa have now. “We were involved in it up to here with Salt Lake City [2002 Winter Olympics] with all the bribes and voting scandals.” Did you see it happening? “No, I was just in the door or a lot of it happened just before I came in [in 1995]. But then Samaranch realised there had to be what he called a ‘cleaning of the house’. Fifteen members were expelled. Then Jacques Rogge came in. I was his EOC vice-president for 12 years and he was so straight down the middle, he’d tolerate nothing whatsoever. [German lawyer] Thomas Bach came in two years ago and he’s brought in this agenda 20:20 and a new ethics code.

“Everything is transparent. I have a son who lives in London yet when that city was bidding for the 2012 Games I had to inform the IOC when I was heading over there.” Next week he heads to Lausanne for a meeting of the 15-person IOC executive. Rio will be high on the agenda: they’re concerned with how some of the facilities are being developed, especially the golf course: they should get it completed in the nick of time but they could struggle to accommodate practice rounds in advance.

Baku though is ready. The place didn’t even get past the first round of previous Olympic Games bids because it hadn’t enough championship-hosting experience but it’ll have plenty after the events from June 12 to 28.

“I was there 15 years ago and it was a kip. Now it’s like Dubai. It’s a totally different place.” The IOC, OCI and even Hickey himself are in a different place too now.

As we’re leaving, he explains the history of the fine edifice that is Olympic House. Up until 10 years ago, it was known as the Boat House, serving as the old harbour masters station.

At the height of the Celtic Tiger builders want to level it to build apartments. But Hickey spotted that there was a preservation order on it, having been built in the 1850s, and made the case that the OCI would be the perfect client.

Once again he won the day. Like the building, he’s still standing.



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