It is inevitable that the arrest of Pat Hickey in Rio de Janeiro will give rise to schadenfreude among more than a few people, writes Michael Clifford
The detention of any 71-year-old in a foreign country would normally be a cause for concern for anybody who knows the individual, but it’s fair to say Hickey has stepped on more than a few toes down through the years.
The most recent to have felt the sharp end of the former judo champion’s personality was Sports Minister Shane Ross. “Shell shock here in Rio,” the minister tweeted as the news broke — you could almost smell the schadenfreude through cyberspace.
Shell shock here in Rio— Shane Ross (@Shane_RossTD) August 17, 2016
Ross had flown to Rio on Sunday after letting all and sundry know he was going to ensure Hickey allowed an independent person to be included in the Olympic Council of Ireland’s inquiry into how a man had been arrested in possession of hundreds of tickets from the OCI allocation.
The summit between the pair ended with Hickey emerging cool, calm, and not a little smug, and Ross quite perturbed at having been effectively snubbed. There would be no independent person sitting in on an OCI inquiry.
Now, it would seem, all has changed utterly with the arrest of Hickey.
From Dublin, Hickey worked as an auctioneer, but it was in his capacity as a sports administer that he came to prominence. He enjoyed a successful career in judo, acquiring a black belt.
While long retired from the sport, he remains physically active. Until recent years he was known to go for 45-minute runs in the Phoenix Park three or four times a week.
While active in judo he began his voluntary work as an Olympic official. In 1988, he was elected president of the OCI for the first time and has held the position since.
His strength lies in his political nous and his ability to water the grassroots of the wider Olympic sporting family. While he has often been in conflict with bodies associated with the high- profile sports, he has always enjoyed support from the lesser known sports, which enjoy equal standing within the Olympic body despite their minority status in terms of participation.
There have been many controversies along the way. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, there was an embarrassing standoff over what kit Sonia O’Sullivan could wear due to a disagreement between the athletics body BLE and the OCI. Hickey stood his ground and found himself in conflict with sport minister Bernard Allen.
Four years later, a major controversy blew up over accreditation for the Sydney Games for then sport minister Jim McDaid. Following a high-profile falling out, it soon became obvious that the government of the day would prefer not to have to deal with Hickey as the top man in the OCI.
An alternative president was proposed for election. Richard Burrows, from a prominent business family and a renowned sailor, went forward as a representative of his sport. Government sources made it plain whom they would want at the helm at a time when allocation of monies to sport was on the increase.
As with other battles in the political sphere, the two sides adopted very different positions.
Hickey assiduously canvassed support among all the sporting bodies, travelling up and down the country to do so. Burrows, apparently buoyed by the backing of official Ireland, sat back and awaited his election. Apart from McDaid, other figures such as Eamonn Coghlan, Michael Carruth, and Mick Dowling suggested it might be time for change at the top.
The outcome, in the 2001 election battle, was emphatic, with Hickey willing 27 voters to 10. Accurately or otherwise, Hickey saw McDaid’s hand behind the attempt to unseat him.
“Guys like him felt they could run the world,” Hickey said later. “‘I’m a big minister, do what I tell you.’ It doesn’t work like that. My constituency is different.” There has been no challenge to his leadership in the intervening 15 years.
He did indicate he was going to step down after the London Games four years ago, but ultimately changed his mind. In one interview last year, he suggested he felt compelled to stay on after being urged to do so by sporting bodies.
Prior to the ticketing controversy, he had indicated he might once again revisit the prospect of retirement and is known to favour the FAI’s John Delaney as his successor. Observers have noted that the two men have many similar qualities in terms of political nous and reputations for getting their way in their respective bodies.
The pinnacle of Hickey’s career in the OCI — for which he is not paid a salary — was probably last year at the inaugural European Games, which he opened as president of the European Olympic Committee. The opening in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku was attended by, among others, Vladamir Putin and Lady Gaga, all looking on as Pat did the honours.
In light of what has transpired since the Rio Games began, he may well wish that he had gone out on top. While there is much hyperbole about the lack of success at the Games, it is the ticket-touting scandal that delivered the ultimate ignominy for a man of Hickey’s standing. His longevity has ensured he is one of the better known figures at the Games, and no doubt ripples about his arrest quickly took off right across the city and beyond yesterday. You’ll never guess who’s just been arrested...
If he does emerge from the whole affair intact, it seems most likely that he will finally decide it is time to step down. This may be one controversy too far for this survivalist extraordinaire.
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