Thursday 27 October 2016

Our athletes' Olympian efforts have been destroyed by the OCI

Gavan Reilly

Published 19/08/2016 | 02:30

Pat Hickey. Photo: Brendan Moran
Pat Hickey. Photo: Brendan Moran

The tumbling bombshells of the Hickey affair will no doubt continue to come for some weeks, as the Brazilian police tunnel their way through a mountain of legitimate questions about the handling of Ireland's ticket allocation for the 2016 Olympics. And those questions are legitimate.

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How did Pro10 Sports Management win a lucrative ticketing contract when it had only been established eight months earlier? And how did millions of euro worth of Irish tickets somehow end up in the hands of Kevin Mallon, who worked for a seeming rival firm - one which had been banned from Olympic work after its then CEO was arrested over ticket touting at the 2014 World Cup?

Those questions, however, will take time to answer properly.

While the Brazilians seem to do things at a different pace, nonetheless answers, charges and hearings will not happen overnight.

In the meantime, Sports Minister Shane Ross is quickly learning that wearing the cloak of minister doesn't exactly cause the world to fall at his feet.

Ross appeared stunned when Hickey brazenly refused to include an independent member in the OCI's internal ticketing inquiry. Hickey did exactly what he has done for decades, recognising his constituency and declaring that he does not answer to the Government.

The inconvenient truth of this is that Hickey is perfectly entitled to ignore the Government's wishes, because the Government did not recruit him in the first place.

I'll explain with an example. If I set up a rugby union association tomorrow morning, I could claim the right to organise a team that represents Ireland. The only thing stopping me would be the fact that World Rugby, the sport's governing body, would not recognise my association as the true 'Ireland' one. Instead, it would (I assume) continue to recognise the IRFU, which has been 'Ireland' since 1875.

Our international teams might represent the Irish 'nation' - the undefined club of people who claim Irishness - but they do not represent the State and there is a crucial difference. Nowhere in the laws of the land - nowhere in the annals of the Oireachtas - will you find any moment at which Ireland (the State) formally recognises any sporting body as representing itself.

The Olympic Council of Ireland would perhaps be better renamed as the Olympic Council That Happens To Be Based In Ireland And Chooses People To Wear A Green Singlet To Represent The Irish Nation Without Formal Status Or Recognition Of The State. (But good luck fitting that on a lanyard.) They're ours ... until they're not.

The romance of international sport is based on the premise that the men and women wearing green are there to represent us and their successes are our successes. That's true only because we allow it to be.

Athletes represent us because we let them - not because they have a right to. Pat Hickey's arrest shames Ireland only if we choose to believe he was in Rio representing Ireland in the first place. Because he was merely representing the Olympic Council That Happens To Be Based In Ireland, the State and the public are equally entitled to wash their hands of him.

The State and the public are, of course, entitled to accountability from the Olympic Council of Ireland about how its funds provided by the taxpayer are used. But to that end, the OCI is no different to Console or the Rehab Group.

Just as the State, at some point, made its decision to outsource social services to the private charity sector, so too did it make an informal choice that Ireland would be represented - on the sporting plane, at least - by people that Ireland never chose.

Just as the State doesn't get to choose how you spend your money, nor does it get to choose what the OCI does with its own money or who it hires to steer the ship.

Read more: Pictured: Pat Hickey released from Rio hospital in a wheelchair - and into police custody

Read more: How the international media reacted to Pat Hickey's arrest in Rio

This setup is not universal, though, and there are other countries where the lines are blurred. Take Belarus, for example - a case Pat Hickey knows all too well, as it was one of his first targets to host the European Games last year. There, the national Olympic committee has been run since 1997 by Alexander Lukashenko.

As it happens, he has also been the president of Belarus since 1994.

Few could argue that the people Lukashenko sends to Rio to wear his country's green and red are free from political culpability if things go wrong.

Look too at China, North Korea or the many other nations where sport is almost officially recognised as a modern, sanitised version of international warfare through which the country declares its might. Look at Russia, where this ambition is so explicit that the State itself sponsored a doping programme in a formal attempt to dominate every sport it could.

In Ireland, though, we opt for the arms-length model. True and comprehensive accountability from those who represent Ireland can come only if the State subsumes its sports and is prepared to deal with the grim, political nefariousness that follows.

In short, either we get Pat Hickey (or someone of his ilk) to run Ireland's Olympic operation, and a diluted right to complain when things go wrong, or we get full operational accountability and Shane Ross.

Perhaps when we come to review the events of Rio 2016, on and off the playing fields, it will be time to have a national chat about which vision we'd prefer.

Lest we forget, the truly lamentable thing is that the 24 hours previous to Hickey's arrest had been among the greatest in Irish Olympic history.

An Irish sailor won a silver medal. And a diver representing Ireland finished eighth (of 29 qualifiers) in an Olympic final.

In boxing, a world champion Irish amateur boxer would have guaranteed himself an Olympic medal - the second of his career - but for some highly questionable judging in his bout.

In athletics, a Waterford man won his semi-final of the 400 metre hurdles and qualified for an Olympic final, the first Irish sprinter to do so since 1932.

There are, in short, probably few days in Ireland's Olympic history when athletes have performed to such a high level in such a varied field of disciplines. In an ideal world, their achievements would have been lauded by the nation and by the body (nominally) responsible for sending them there.

In the real world, that body itself has ruined their recognition.

Gavan Reilly is a political correspondent for Today FM news

Irish Independent

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