Thursday 27 October 2016

Legacy tarnished despite Hickey's own best efforts

Hickey is no stranger to legal wrangles and has taken on the country's leading media titles, writes Wayne O'Connor

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

'Now, Rio has become Hickey’s defining moment.' Photo: PA
'Now, Rio has become Hickey’s defining moment.' Photo: PA

The Celtic Tiger was just a young cub basking in the success of Michael Carruth's Barcelona gold medal win when it was earnestly proposed that Ireland could bid to host an Olympic Games.

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"I don't want the country to be the laughing stock of the world. In terms of facilities, we have zero percent in place at this moment," said Pat Hickey.

A bid to host the summer games would have cost the Government a fortune and Hickey was not afraid to dampen expectation. He claimed he was more interested in developing our sportsmen and women.

The Dubliner has never shied away from combat when under pressure. This brought its own challenges and a number of legal battles after a series of media outlets questioned Hickey's running of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI).

The Sunday Independent was among those showered with writs in 1996, and again in 1998. On the first occasion, Hickey initiated High Court proceedings against this newspaper after taking issue with a piece that highlighted how the auctioneer carried out business deals on behalf of the OCI.

It was revealed that the OCI president once negotiated a sponsorship deal with Opel that saw him secure the use of an Opel Omega for himself. Cars were also acquired for ferrying athletes around ahead of the 1996 Olympic Games and Opels would also be used for transporting foreign dignitaries visiting the OCI. Issues surrounding the questionable use of OCI funding were also raised.

It was said Hickey brought the then chief executive of Irish Permanent to Italia 90 as his official guest despite, by his own admission, the trip having nothing to do with the OCI. The Sunday Independent asked why the State-funded OCI should foot the bill.

It was not the only time he had used his position to woo those holding the purse strings in Irish Permanent and he continues his long-standing association with the bank to this day through the auctioneering firm he co-directs with his wife, French-born Sylviane. He was working on a "special deal" with the bank in 1994 to secure a permanent HQ for the OCI when 48 Irish Permanent staff were invited to an Olympic banquet. Negations were also taking place with two other companies but they received only six invitations between them.

Fine Gael sports minister Bernard Allen's children accompanied him on a business trip to Atlanta ahead of the Olympic Games seemingly at the expense of the OCI. Hickey insisted it was in the best interests of the committee because the organisation would later reap "the rewards" if the minister was kept happy. However, his work was in vain and a wrangle over funding led to Hickey describing the minister as the "Fuhrer". However, Mr Allen said that he paid for his own trip.

The main opposition parties did not care enough to speak out at the time, so the media took up the baton. It resulted in nine separate High Court filings by Hickey in a two-year spell between 1996 and 1998. He filed against INM titles five times, also bringing cases against the Sunday Times, the Cork Examiner and RTE. However, a judgement was never made against any media outlet in the cases and they eventually petered out. It appeared Hickey was launching warning shots across the bows of the country's newsrooms.

His message was clear: "I'm not to be messed with."

The Brazilian journalist who broke the news of Hickey's arrest last week had some of his Olympic credentials removed soon afterwards. They were later reinstated, with authorities claiming a mistake had been made.

Brazilian security sources may feel they have nabbed their man but it is clear Hickey will not go down without a fight. He has frequently courted controversy but always came out the other side unscathed. In a detailed interview in 2015, he told the Irish Examiner he took pride and delight from all the scraps he survived and won.

"Guys like him," he said of former sports minister Jim McDaid, "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."

He knows his constituency better than anyone. With a background in judo (he was the first Irishman to achieve his black belt in Japan), he represented Ireland more than 70 times in competition but never made it to the Olympic games. He eventually moved into sports administration. His profile on the OCI's website calls him "the top ranked Irish administrator in the world".

Hickey progressed through the ranks to become OCI president in 1988 prior to Dublin hosting the European Olympic Committee general assembly.

Here, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, he realised he could build a sporting powerbase by forming lasting relationships with new members from smaller countries. Each country has the same amount of votes, so carry the same weighting - a tactic utilised by former Fifa president Sepp Blatter prior to his own corruption scandal.

He has reached such notoriety that he has been seen socialising with fellow judo black belt and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The pair are said to have a lot in common but are both passionate about their own sport.

"I was just a boy when I started judo," said Putin. "I became deeply interested in martial arts, their special philosophy, culture, relations with the opponent and the rules of combat."

Most recently, the pair were pictured together in 2015 at the European games in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the opening of the European Games.

Hickey's opponents saw the tournament as a vanity project. They believed Hickey indulged himself by establishing a legacy and creating the European Games.

Amnesty International raised questions about the venue and Azerbaijan's human rights record. However, Hickey saw it as the proudest moment of a long career and laughed off the controversy.

Now, Rio has become Hickey's defining moment. The allegations of corruption against him, as he stood in his dressing gown in a hotel room in front of cameras recording his arrest, will overshadow the achievements of the O'Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy at these games.

He has faced the embarrassment of a downfall played out like a South American telenovela.

The charges of touting and forming a cartel will resonate more than any of the medals the Irish athletes fought for.

Sunday Independent

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