GERARD HOWLIN: Sports organisations need to take a hard look in the mirror

Church, State, gardaí, charities, and sport have been cut off at the knees by the modern phenomenon of the death of deference, writes Gerard Howlin.

YESTERDAY on this page Fergus Finlay, whose day job is CEO of Barnardos, pointed out the paucity of basic information on the Olympic Council of Ireland’s (OCI) website.

Accounts are lacking and they are a critical symptom of public accountability. An experienced leader of a reputable charity, Finlay called for minimal governance standards as a prerequisite of government funding from January 1.

So do I.

And no, we haven’t spoken or compared notes. It’s simply bog standard and blindingly obvious.

The underlying problem at the OCI isn’t allegations about tickets in Rio. The core issue is governance.

The mere fact of having a president in office continuously since 1989 tells its own story.

Pat Hickey told RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke that although he would “definitely definitely” leave the post after Rio “continuity will prevail” and lest the point be lost: “I will be very happy”.

Happiness for Hickey means that in his view he would likely be succeeded immediately by his senior vice-president William O’Brien and thereafter by his second vice-president John Delaney. It smacks of 1970s Kremlinology.

A core issue at the OCI is the weakness of its executive vis-à-vis the board and the outsized role of the president in relation to both board and executive.

Sports organisations need to take a hard look in the mirror

Of itself, Hickey’s decades-long tenure is indisputable proof of an inappropriate dominance by reference to any credible standard of governance.

Anyone with any knowledge of the OCI will know he effectively combined the role of a chairman with most of the recognisable attributes of a chief executive.

The executive is effectively a secretariat to, rather than a separately and independently-managed function, accountable to the board through normal governance arrangements.

Through longevity in office and force of personality, the OCI, under Pat Hickey, is an organisation where organisational junctures are far more blurred than distinct.

None of this is unique to the OCI. Nor is it equivalent to malfeasance. It is, however, typical of the malaise that wreaked reputational destruction across the charity sector.

Charismatic founders stayed too long or had too overbearing an influence.

In reverse, effective and driven CEOs executed board capture where ill-informed and frequently underqualified board members were drip-fed partial information.

Overlong tenures on charity boards contributed to corrosive dulling of accountability in relationships between them and their executives that left them apparently astonished when it was discovered they were running gravy trains instead of charities.

Friendly or at least civil relations are essential in a functioning organisation.

But the structural relationship between board and management needs to be sufficiently taut to allow each perform its distinct function, in ways that ensure one challenges the other appropriately.

Regular change at board level and term limits for all directors are essential bulwarks against an inappropriate colonisation of function by officials or directors who display more the behaviour of owners than servants of an organisation.

A good news story in Irish sport is an appreciable improvement in governance across the board.

Sport Ireland, until last year the Irish Sports Council, has put considerable time and expertise into working with sports organisations to help them run themselves better.

On its website is a whole section entitled “OD & Change”, which translates as organisational development to you and me.

In sports culture where the overwhelming majority of directors on all boards from local clubs to national governing bodies are unpaid volunteers, and where the onus of being a director is significant, that is the sort of practical help and confidence-building that bears dividends over time.

Sports organisations need to take a hard look in the mirror

It doesn’t get much coverage but it is an essential investment in effective, reputable sports infrastructure.

Athletics Ireland — athletics was once the omnishambles of Irish sport — is an example of sports administration transformed.

Special Olympics and the GAA are likewise strong, reputable organisations, as increasingly is sport in general.

It is a supreme irony that over nearly 20 years which have seen much better infrastructure, significantly increased funding and generally far better governance, the OCI remains an outlier.

It remains for now, under the same leadership too.

There was a fork in the road for Irish sport with the establishment of a statutory sports council and the removal of available funds for sports bodies from the maw of the OCI.

Since then, most sports have been on a progressive trajectory.

Some, like the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, seem to have lost their way.

Most are much better. But the one-time mothership of Irish sport remains moored in Howth, anchored to the same man and until now effectively answerable to no one.

Cultural transformation is required within the OCI; so too are personnel changes.

If Rio is a catalyst, so much the better.

But alleged events there should not be confused with a long-term, underlying Olympic-sized problem here.

When the dust settles and it may take months, Sports Minister Shane Ross and his junior minister Patrick O’Donovan will have a choice.

They can do what they can, though it may not be decisive and cut funding to OCI, if it does not radically reform.

Certainly Hickey, still in his pomp on the eve of his arrest in Rio, calculated probably correctly that Ross would hardly dare cut funds: If he did his successor would probably rescind, and a successor might arrive sooner rather than later but certainly well in advance of the Tokyo Olympics, four years thence.

And what of that approximately €500,000 in funds paid by the Government on our behalf?

It accounts for hardly more than a third of OCI annual funding.

Sports organisations need to take a hard look in the mirror

OCI could sit that out, for a year or two, handily enough.

That’s why Ross was put back in his box in Rio. He couldn’t mount a sustainable siege.

Hickey’s arrest, albeit on the basis of unproven allegations, has however unhinged his leadership.

Assuming his prerogative of innocence, nothing will ever be the same. Once vulnerability touches autocracy, it is never omnipotent again.

The Hickey era is over, regardless of the sequel.

The fundamental issue for the member sports of the OCI is whether it wishes to change its ethos as well as its president.

To imagine a government minister can do this is wishful thinking.

Sports bodies are independent for a good reason.

Now they need to have a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves exactly what they stand for.

It is not about tickets in Rio ultimately, it is about sport as a field of dreams.

One by one Church, State, gardaí, charities, and sport have been cut off at the knees by the modern phenomenon of the death of deference.

First mass media, then social media enabled this.

Existing in a hybrid world of globalised finance and marketing, but marketing an ancient ideal of sport rerun on any local Irish sports field, global sport has become a hideous caricature of itself.

It is worth remembering ancient Olympia now. A crown of simple laurel leaves was sufficient tribute.

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