Thursday 29 September 2016

Martina Devlin: Olympic flame sputters in the wake of tickets scandal and Hickey's fall from grace

Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30

Pat Hickey at the 2015 European Games in Baku. Photo: Jack Guez
Pat Hickey at the 2015 European Games in Baku. Photo: Jack Guez
Pat Hickey. Photo: Brendan Moran

The keepers of the Olympic flame are exposing it to some unhealthy draughts, between allegations of doped athletes, crooked referees and unscrupulous ticket-touting. It's impossible to escape the conclusion that events at Rio 2016 are overshadowing the games and falling far short of the Olympic ideal.

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Perhaps the most perplexing episode surrounds Pat Hickey, in jail after being denied bail by a Brazilian judge and facing charges relating to fraudulent ticket-marketing.

Whatever happens, Ireland's reputation has been blemished on the international stage. Runner Sebastian Coe, who won gold twice for Britain, once said his boyhood heroes were Olympians. I wonder how many children today would echo his words?

There are still men and women competing honestly and to their utmost in pursuit of sporting excellence, of course. There are still officials working diligently and with integrity. But the Olympics are a damaged brand - they have been dragged through the dirt once too often, and bodies responsible for imposing anti-vice safeguards have not upheld their side of the bargain.

Corruption in sport is nothing new, although it is particularly distasteful when it dishonours the Olympic spirit. Indeed, Mr Hickey has spoken in the past about International Olympic Committee (IOC) members being offered cash for votes, as cities vie to host the lucrative games. Persistent rumours of vote-selling date back over decades, and contribute to the undermining of public trust.

Mr Hickey, President of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) - he has stepped aside temporarily while investigations take place - must be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. However, photographs of him hiding on the floor of a police car are hardly dignified. He'd have been better advised to sit up and look like the president of a major sporting body who welcomes the chance to clear his name. This is a post of honour, after all.

The former auctioneer, top dog in Irish sports administration and said to be a prime mover on the IOC, has suffered an extraordinary reversal. One day he is rejecting Sports Minister Shane Ross's proposal that someone independent should be appointed to the OCI's inquiry into ticket profiteering - a reasonable suggestion from the minister, in the interests of restoring public confidence. And the next day, police launch an early morning raid on Mr Hickey's bedroom with a warrant for his arrest.

That imperious rebuff from Mr Hickey raised a red flag about transparency. The OCI now says it will cooperate fully with any State investigation into ticket sales - a noticeably less dogmatic approach.

Aged 71, Mr Hickey has been on the board of the OCI for 33 years and president for more than 27 years. This is an extraordinary tenure and contrary to best practice in corporate governance. It raises the spectre of unfettered powers of decision-making.

As president, Mr Hickey sets the tone for the organisation. That tone was disrespectful to the Irish public when he refused an independent representative on the OCI inquiry. Just as the terminology used in an email giving him legal advice was insolent, suggesting Shane Ross "needs to be put back in his box". Mr Ross is a democratically elected representative of the Irish people, and a senior Cabinet member.

For me, a key question to emerge from Rio is: does anyone have oversight of Mr Hickey, or is he free to do as he pleases without check? I note the OCI received €1.7m in funding from taxpayers over the past four years, €520,000 of it last year alone.

The body has 13 directors, including Mr Hickey. All are voluntary positions. Five members have been in situ for 19 years or more. Two others have been in place for 11 and seven years respectively.

This smacks of a solidified board. Allowing someone to hold office for an unusually long time carries risks. For the wellbeing of any organisation, it is essential to protect against any individual or small group of people dominating decision-making. Best practice calls for membership to be refreshed after six years, and if someone is to stay on there should be compelling reasons - otherwise people become entrenched.

Boards provide leadership and determine values. Well-run boards need new blood added progressively, bringing new ideas, perspectives and challenges to the body's thinking. Appointments should take diversity into account, including gender. Just two of the OCI's 13 members are female (Olympian Sonia O'Sullivan is one of them).

So, the way the OCI operates under Mr Hickey seems contrary to some of the principles of good governance. That is not in the sporting body's long-term interests.

All boards - but particularly those in receipt of public funds - should apply corporate governance principles. The tenets underpinning governance are accountability, transparency, probity and an emphasis on the organisation's sustainable long-term success.

If a body has public funding but is not fully State-funded, it is unclear how far the State can go to impose corporate governance standards. But best practice must be the desirable benchmark, and the head of the organisation has a key role to play here.

"The chairperson should display high standards of integrity and probity and set expectations regarding culture, values, and behaviours for the State body and for the tone of discussions at Board level," says the new Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies.

The OCI is not a State body but it is a significant one. Has Mr Hickey's behaviour as president over almost three decades reached those levels? And whether or not it has, would the OCI benefit from a change of leadership? To my mind, the answer to the second question is yes.

Finally, an "honorarium" of €60,000 is paid every year to him, which the OCI says is being set aside for a bursary in his name for young athletes. I find this somewhat odd. An honorarium is a small amount of money given to someone not charging for a service; €60,000 every year since 2010 is substantial, whatever its intended use.

The credibility of international sport has been shaken by Rio 2016 but good governance is one way of restoring trust. For that, sporting organisations need to embrace accountability and transparency, not least in relation to finances. More openness is in everyone's interest.

Irish Independent

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