Saturday 1 October 2016

Sylviane caught in vicious crossfire of sporting politics

From mixing with royalty to facing armed police, Pat Hickey's innocent wife has been through a terrible ordeal

Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30

OLYMPIC SOCIAL CIRCUIT: Sylviane and Pat Hickey were no strangers to socialising with dignitaries such as Vladimir Putin
OLYMPIC SOCIAL CIRCUIT: Sylviane and Pat Hickey were no strangers to socialising with dignitaries such as Vladimir Putin

When she woke up to her 65th birthday yesterday, Sylviane Hickey, the wife of the former Olympic Council of Ireland President, Pat Hickey, was believed to be in her native France while her 71-year-old husband languished in a Rio prison with his long and, at times, distinguished career in tatters.

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For a woman who has been feted by presidents and princes, there wasn't much to celebrate yesterday. Sylviane, who has avoided the limelight in Ireland with as much determination as her husband has courted controversy, has watched her world collapse since the dramatic events unfolded in Rio on Wednesday, August 17.

While the Hickey family have appointed a new public relations advisor and a firm of solicitors to represent them, questions about Mrs Sylviane Hickey, the woman who has been by her husband's side through thick and thin over the last five decades, were "off limits" and friends describe her as "too fragile" to talk at the moment.

It is perhaps unsurprising that she is suffering some form of distress given that it was she who opened the door to their room in the Windsor Marapendi Hotel in Rio shortly before 6am that morning to find a dozen armed policemen outside looking for her husband, accompanied by a journalist filming the ignominious fall from grace of the man who has come to be known among a certain circle of friends as 'The Lord of the Rings' - a play on his dominance of the Olympic movement in Ireland symbolised by five intertwined coloured rings representing the five continents.

As we now know, Hickey was taking a bath in an adjoining room registered to his son and was naked when he answered the door to the police. He suffered the indignity of being filmed as he was marched from the room in a white hotel dressing gown and taken to hospital and then to prison.

Although there hasn't been much public sympathy in Ireland for the long-time president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, it was a "degrading and humiliating ordeal" as described by Anne Marie James, who has now been retained as legal advisor to the Hickey family.

At the urging of her imprisoned husband, Sylviane left the Brazilian capital Rio de Janeiro last week, as she would not even have been allowed to visit him in prison for at least 30 days. She was strongly advised not to come back to Ireland because of the intense media speculation and she is instead believed to have travelled to France where she is staying with relatives.

It must have been another bitter blow for a woman who has always been protective of her husband and is regarded as a fairly tough lady in her own right.

There are conflicting stories about what exactly transpired when the armed police stormed the Hickeys' hotel room, but it has been reported that Sylviane told police she didn't know where her husband was.

When they saw his Olympic accreditation on the floor, as well as his shoes and socks, the police moved next door. Mrs Hickey later gave a second passport held by Pat Hickey to Olympic Council of Ireland officials to give to the Brazilian authorities.

Sylviane Hickey was born on August 27, 1949, in France. She came to Ireland as a young woman and met and married Hickey, then a judo champion, auctioneer and insurance agent. She qualified as a professional property surveyor and valuer in her own right and is a director of Pat Hickey (Auctioneers) Ltd and Pat Hickey Insurances Ltd.

Despite his position as president of the OCI, the couple have never been part of the Dublin social scene. Their business offices are in unfashionable Dorset Street in the north inner city and they have lived most of their lives in low-key suburban homes in Castleknock, first Roselawn and now Castleknock Park, where they reared their four children Fred, Corine, Alan and Stephan.

Fred (45) and Corine (39) worked in the family auctioneer and valuing business, but resigned as directors in 2014 and now the firms are owned and controlled solely by their parents.

Like many other small firms, the Hickey businesses suffered during the recession and Pat Hickey has always had a time-consuming schedule as president of the OCI and other prestigious sub-committees within the Olympic movement.

As president of the European Olympics Committee, a position to which he was elected in 2006, he had a 'grace and favour' apartment in Rome at the disposal of himself and his wife and the couple have been part of the glittering Olympic social circuit which involved meetings and dinners with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prince Albert of Monaco, Princess Anne of England and other luminaries who are all part of the Olympic golden inner circle.

One OCI source said that while Sylviane was often by his side, she had been "getting a bit sick of it" in recent years. Sports administrators are a bit like politicians in that there is intense networking involved in staying at the top, but it can be a very draining and tiring experience unless you are passionately interested in sports politics and the manoeuvring and alliance-making that goes with it.

"He thrives on that sort of stuff, but it can get to you," said a source. However, friends are perturbed at why Hickey was singled out in Rio and maintain that much of the ticketing arrangement by the OCI was conveyed to the International Olympic Committee by email in the months leading up to the Rio Games.

While Hickey has had his run-ins with various senior political figures over the years, he can also be diplomatic and charming when he wants to be.

In his 2012 book The Untouchables, now Sports Minister Shane Ross seems to have a grudging respect for the Irish Olympics boss. "While (Richard) Burrows' ascent to the top seemed unstoppable, his career had suffered at least one surprise setback. He was a fine sailor, but must have come to believe he could walk on water when, in 2001, he tried to topple the long-time incumbent, Pat Hickey, for the chair of the Olympic Council of Ireland. Opponents of Hickey persuaded Burrows that he could oust him. Burrows swallowed the bait, allowed his name to go forward, and conducted a very public campaign. But he was trounced by 27 votes to 10."

If Pat Hickey was the consummate mover and shaker, fighting battles with politicians and rivals like businessman Burrows and Tony O'Reilly to stay in control of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Sylviane was the politician's wife, fluent in several languages, glamorous, by his side when the occasions warranted, but very much in the background, leaving him alone in the 'smoke-filled backrooms' where Hickey plotted the strategy that has kept him at the top in a cut-throat world since 1989.

Because of his Phibsborough 'street fighting' reputation, Hickey has made enemies in politics, sport and, particularly, the media, who are now inclined to gloat at his downfall - but would find the arrest and detention of a more refined and diplomatic public figure a flagrant breach of human rights as we understand them, which it clearly was.

The tragedy for Sylviane Hickey is that though completely innocent herself, she has been caught squarely in the vicious crossfire of international sporting politics. It had to be a terrifying ordeal, especially for someone who is used to being feted at international events like the Olympics and the ancillary social scene that surrounds the organisation.

Unfortunately for her and the Hickey family, this is a story that won't go away. Pat Hickey has fought many bloody and bitter sporting battles and come out on top as various scarred politicians and opponents can testify.

But now, incarcerated in a prison in Brazil, the odds are stacked against the fighter who laid his claim to fame on the judo mat and climbed near the pinnacle of international sporting politics with the unerring support of his wife, who can now do nothing to help or console him.

Sunday Independent

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