Saturday 17 March 2018

Pat Hickey: The Teflon man of sport

Pat Hickey - the man who has run the Olympic Council of Ireland for nearly three decades - has seen Irish sport in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week. Our reporter profiles our man in Rio

Ireland's Olympic boss Pat Hickey
Ireland's Olympic boss Pat Hickey
Ireland's Joe Ward in action in Rio
The disputed tickets that the OCI president knew nothing about
Pat Hickey with Katie and Peter Taylor
Ringside: Pat Hickey at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with his right-hand man and FAI chief John Delaney
John Treacy
Leo Varadkar
Richard Burrows
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Pop star Lady Gaga sang John Lennon's 'Imagine' sitting at a flower-covered piano in Baku, Aberbaijan, as Vladimir Putin looked on approvingly.

It was the opening of the inaugural European Games last year, the proudest moment in the stellar career of the former auctioneer from Phibsborough, Pat Hickey.

As President of the European Olympic Committees, Hickey had helped to create the games in the oil-rich country. It was all his brainchild.

And at the peak of his career, he himself was opening the games in the presence of Putin, 35 heads of state and 6,000 athletes, setting aside any reservations by others that the events were being hosted by one of the most corrupt states in the world.

Ireland's Joe Ward in action in Rio
Ireland's Joe Ward in action in Rio

After a stint as a judo international, Hickey rose to become the most powerful man in Irish sport as President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, and has held that mantle for nearly three decades.

Since he started his marathon stint as president in 1988, Hickey has frequently been at the centre of controversy, and the Irish team and officials have been hit by more crises in recent days.

The Olympic Council of Ireland was at the centre of a ticket tout scandal after two people were arrested amid allegations that they were illegally selling tickets allocated to the organisation.

​There is no suggestion that Hickey himself is personally implicated in the scandal.​

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Pat Hickey stayed silent on the issue. But in a statement the OCI said it had "no knowledge" of the arrested pair at the centre of the allegation. The ​organisation said it had launched an "immediate investigation". To add to the OCI's woes, boxer Michael O'Reilly became the first Irish athlete in history to be expelled from the Olympic Games for failing a dope test.

It may have been a tumultuous week, not helped by the poor performance of some of our boxers, but based on previous form, Pat Hickey will not let any of these difficulties deflect him.

The disputed tickets that the OCI president knew nothing about
The disputed tickets that the OCI president knew nothing about

He has said that he would step down as president after the Rio Olympics, but a few years back he said he would retire before Rio. Nobody would be surprised if he stays on.

Other sporting officials who have attempted to remove him in elections have found themselves easily out-manoeuvred.

Fine Gael TD Noel Rock this week described the ticketing fiasco as an embarrassment not just for the Olympic Council of Ireland, but for the country in general.

At times Hickey himself has not hidden his contempt for politicians if they crossed him. After a wrangle over sports funding in the 1990s, he described the Sports Minister Bernard Allen as the "Führer".

Jim McDaid, another sports minister, also had rows with him and described him as "divisive, disruptive and confrontational".

One of the rows centred on the minister's accreditation for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Pat Hickey with Katie and Peter Taylor
Pat Hickey with Katie and Peter Taylor

McDaid said either Hickey would have to change, or he would be changed.

Hickey later said of McDaid: "Guys like him 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."

Those who know Hickey say that despite an abrasive streak, he is a shrewd political strategist and is capable of turning on the charm when he needs to.

In another life he could have been a Fianna Fáil minister of the old school, but how many of them succeeded in staying in office for 28 years?

One sports figure who has seen him work up close tells Review: "He approaches everything in a political way, and knows that it is all about getting the votes, no matter where they are from."

Hickey rose up the ranks in a small sport, judo. But early on in his career as an aspiring Olympic official, he realised that the small sports had as many votes on the council as the more popular glamorous sports.

He went after the support of these small federations to win votes, and ensured that they were looked after.

It was the sporting equivalent of the chicken-in-a-basket circuit in party politics.

The black belt in judo enjoyed having regular bouts of his chosen sport right up until his forties, but gave up fearing that it was not good for the bones. As one commentator noted, since then, the tussles involving the 71-year-old have mostly taken place in committee rooms.

Back in 2001, there was a significant challenge to Hickey when Richard Burrows, the former head of Pernod Ricard and a leading light in sailing, stood against him. Some of Ireland's most famous Olympians, Eamonn Coghlan, Michael Carruth and Mick Dowling, came out and urged support for Burrows but Hickey carefully gathered his votes where it mattered, rather than through the media.

There was frantic speculation that he was about to be toppled, but in the end Burrows was surprised when the votes came in and Hickey won a landslide victory 27-10.

The Irish sporting stage was by no means the limit of Hickey's ambitions, and he adopted a similar approach to politicking to win support in Europe.

One acquaintance tells Review: "He got all the small federations for as many of the niche sports as possible in Europe on his side.

"That gave him as much clout, if not more, than if he won over the people associated with glamorous sports."

Likewise, in the 1990s he saw that he could build his sporting powerbase in the new countries that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Hickey was the Irish delegate to the European Olympic Committee Dublin. The formation of those 15 new countries coincided with Dublin hosting the EOC General Assembly. This gave Hickey an opportunity to form lasting relationships with the new members.

"Twelve or 14 of those countries had no money, they were destitute nearly, they barely had anything to eat," Hickey recalled recently in an interview. "So we looked after those people very well and since then those guys have stuck with me solidly. I became very popular in the east of Europe, more so than in the west."

Hickey ran for the executive board of the EOC and was elected, steadily rising up the ranks to become president. While there have been many squabbles with Irish sporting officials and politicians, he moves easily in the glad-handing circles of Olympic officialdom.

It's a world of plush hotels and limos, and Hickey is on first-name terms with heads of state. A visitor to the EOC's General Assembly noted how the great and the good of the Olympic movement were queuing up to sing his praises.

One visitor to Olympic House, the Irish Olympic Council's headquarters in Howth, noted his hospitable manner, which can be used to good effect.

"He uses your name liberally throughout the whole conversation. He shows you around the highly-impressive offices of the OCI and its many framed photographs, and has an engaging anecdote for each one."

But Hickey has seldom escaped controversy. Some of the rows centred around Ireland's involvement in the Olympics have been farcical over the years.

In 1996, a disagreement between the OCI and the Irish athletics body BLE over what kit should be worn led to Sonia O'Sullivan being forced into an embarrassing strip and change of kit in the stadium tunnel just minutes before her 5,000 metres final in Atlanta.

Hickey has been the highest profile Irishman in international sports administration since Lord Michael Killanin was president of the International Olympic Committee in the 1970s.

He is likely to see his brainchild, the European Games, as his crowning achievement.

He responded to criticism for awarding the hosting rights to Azerbaijan, because of its poor human rights record, by saying he had done all within his limited powers to address the issue.

"We met and listened to bodies such as Amnesty International and the European Union and we conveyed their worries and concerns to the highest authorities in Azerbaijan," said Hickey.

"We did all we could, we do not have the authority to tell a state what it must do."

During the games, Hickey fulfilled his wish to present Katie Taylor her gold medal, and was given a hug by Azerbaijan's dictator Ilham Aliyev in the stands.

In recent weeks, Hickey has condemned all doping in sport as reprehensible. But he also defended the decision of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) not to impose an outright ban on Russian athletes at the Rio games.

Hickey was one of the 15 members who voted unanimously to leave decisions on individual athletes' participation with their international sports federations.

"The reality of life is that we have a duty to protect the clean athletes," he said. "Everyone talks about collective responsibility, but when you have the right to collective responsibility versus the right for individual justice that every human being is entitled to, this has to be weighed up.

"For example, if you in the morning commit a heinous crime, why should your family also be sentenced and jailed as a result of that?"

The appearance of Olympic Council of Ireland tickets in a touting scandal is at the very least an embarrassment and it remains to be seen what the outcome of the investigations will bring.

Whatever the outcome, it is likely that Hickey will step down as president at a time of his own choosing, proud of what he has achieved in international sport as the great survivor.

Marathon Winner: The Hickey CV

Name: Patrick Joseph Hickey.

Title: President of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

Age: 71.

From: Phibsborough, Dublin.

Maritla status: Married Sylviane (four children).

Profession: Auctioneering and insurance.

Languages: English & French.

Sports: Hickey was a former Irish judo champion and has also played soccer, squash, tennis and golf. He is a judo black belt and represented Ireland internationally.

Career: Became President of the Olympic Council of Ireland in 1988, Irish member of the Irish Olympic Committee in 1995, and elected President of the European Olympic Committees in 2006.

Sports ministers he liked: Leo Varadkar, Michael Ring and Frank Fahey.

Sports ministers he disliked: Jim McDaid and Bernard Allen (he dubbed him "Führer").

How Jim McDaid described him: "Divisive, disruptive and confrontational."

Hobbies: Travel, history, music, watching Love/Hate and running through the Phoenix Park.

Ringside: Pat Hickey at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with his right-hand man and FAI chief John Delaney

Ringside: Pat Hickey at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with his right-hand man and FAI chief John Delaney

Quote, unquote:  the things he's said

On being Irish in the Olympic movement

"You have the people in the east resenting the west but Paddy is Paddy. We are neutral, we have no baggage and we are an island, and I was able to float in between the different politics."

On Irish Sports Council boss John Treacy

John Treacy

"John Treacy says his door is open - but is there anybody inside the door.''

On athletes

"If I had a pound for every time someone came back from the Olympics and said, 'We're gonna start this up and that up', I'd be a rich man. Athletes are very selfish, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Runners go back to running. Rowers go back to rowing. Sailors go back to sailing."

On his controversial image

"I get worried now - no one's attacking me! I really do! I wake up some days: How come I'm not in the papers anymore?"

On businessman Richard Burrows, who tried to topple him as OCI President in 2001

Richard Burrows

"I told Richard, because I liked Richard, 'You're being used. Forget about it. You've no chance'."

On why he opposed an outright Russian doping ban

"If you in the morning commit a heinous crime, why should your family also be sentenced and jailed as a result of that?"

On Ireland hosting the Olympics

"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."

On Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

"A brilliant sports minister. We were sorry to lose him. Very hands on, knew what he was doing, could make decisions."

On Diageo's opposition to a ban on alcohol sports sponsorship

"An absolute disgrace. This is a multinational that has no interest whatsoever in Ireland, except they happen to have a product beginning with G."

Indo Review

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life