Saturday 23 September 2017

Watershed moment gives Olympic movement chance to show it wants to change

The race is on to replace Pat Hickey as Olympic Council of Ireland president. Photo: Colin Keegan
The race is on to replace Pat Hickey as Olympic Council of Ireland president. Photo: Colin Keegan
John Greene

John Greene

The three candidates to succeed Pat Hickey as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland were each interviewed in turn by Joanne Cantwell on RTE Radio 1 last Saturday. It made for interesting listening.

The line of questioning by Cantwell was perceptive, direct and relevant, and all three - Sarah Keane, the chief executive of Swim Ireland; Bernard O'Byrne, chief executive of Basketball Ireland; and Willie O'Brien, vice-president of the OCI and the man who had been widely tipped to succeed Hickey prior to the Rio Olympics - were challenged on their records in sports administration. O'Brien, in particular, endured a torrid time during Cantwell's persistent questioning.

O'Brien has been an executive member of the OCI since 1996 and has been fulfilling the role of president in an acting capacity since Hickey stepped aside last August. During the interview he pledged to oversee the implementation of all the recommendations contained in the Deloitte report which was commissioned after events in Rio. However, one of those recommendations centred on term limits, with eight years - 12 in exceptional circumstances - suggested, and O'Brien is already well beyond that as it is. He countered by arguing that he had the requisite experience to lead change in the organisation, but the contradiction in his argument loomed large: "In order to implement them, I have stay on and work on implementing them," he said.

Then there was the conclusion of the interview, where once again he stumbled:

Joanne Cantwell: As president, will you travel first class?

Willie O'Brien: No.

JC: Have you travelled first class in your time with the OCI?

WOB: I have travelled first class, yeah.

JC: Often? While athletes travelled economy?

WOB: No, never while athletes travelled economy.

JC: How did you go to Rio?

WOB: I went to Rio business class.

JC: OK, business class but the athletes travelled first . . . or, em, economy did they?

WOB: The athletes travelled economy, yeah.

JC: Is that something you intend to continue or will you travel the same as the athletes do?

WOB: No. I didn't travel with the athletes. I travelled separately.

JC: I know that, but if they're travelling economy do you think that it's right that a member of the OCI travels business class?

WOB: I believe that everybody on a long-haul trip like Rio . . . that everybody should travel business class, unfortunately it's such an expensive commodity that the OCI couldn't afford.

JC: But they could afford it for members of the OCI?

WOB: They could afford it . . . I'll admit to that.

Keane and O'Byrne were more composed in their delivery, but had unsettling moments too. Keane was challenged on whether she had done enough to question the leadership during her two years as a member of the OCI board, while O'Byrne was forced to resolutely defend his record during his time as the chief executive of the FAI.

All three hopefuls agreed on one thing, the need for change in the organisation. O'Brien has been a long time in the shadow of Hickey at the OCI so his record as an administrator is more difficult to gauge than that of the other two, both of whom were brought in to turn around the fortunes of badly damaged organisations, Swim Ireland and Basketball Ireland.

The OCI is clearly crying out for change. That much is obvious. It is widely accepted that it is not good for any organisation - sporting or other - to have one dominant figure at the helm for a long period of time because, apart from anything else, bad habits develop and stakeholders generally lose focus.

Over the last few weeks, delegates who will vote at Thursday night's extraordinary general meeting will have been hearing about the need for 'radical change' at the OCI, about the need for greater transparency and accountability, about the need for proper lines of demarcation between the board and the executive, and so on. Now is their chance to act.

Apart from the election of a new president - and the OCI will have a new person in that role for the first time since 1989 - new first and second vice-presidents will be elected. Sarah O'Shea, formerly of the FAI, is running against the sitting general secretary, Dermot Henihan, and a new executive committee will also be put in place.

The procedure on Thursday night is straightforward, with each of the member associations having a vote, and each current council member also having a vote - including Hickey - to give a total of 42 possible votes.

The voting will be managed and verified by Byrne Wallace Solicitors, along with two nominees from the national federations. As acting president, O'Brien will have casting vote in the event there is a tie in any of the elections except the one to elect a new president. In that case, prior to the egm, the OCI council will nominate an individual to have the casting vote.

The principal question to be answered, on the surface at least, is who will replace Pat Hickey as president. But it's not the most important issue at stake. It promises to be a watershed day for the Irish Olympic movement. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that Irish sport is ready to take on more responsibility, that it is moving in the right direction.

There's an old joke which asks how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one . . . but the lightbulb has to want to change.

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