Thursday 18 July 2019

New faces after seismic OCI vote, but there is a huge amount of work to be done

New Olympic Council of Ireland president Sarah Keane. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
New Olympic Council of Ireland president Sarah Keane. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

John Greene

There was no blood spilt on the fine carpets of the luxurious Conrad Hotel last Thursday night. In the end, the Olympic Council of Ireland's egm was a bloodless coup. A new president, two new vice-presidents, a new general secretary and a new executive committee in a night of change for Irish sport.

Only treasurer William Kennedy survived - returned unopposed after the withdrawal of the only other nominee for the position, Nicholas Jermyn - but in line with OCI procedures, delegates on the night still had to cast a vote, and with a quarter of those (13 of 42) spoiled, his re-election was hardly a ringing endorsement.

The signs were there early that this would be an OCI meeting like no other in recent memory. The chief executive, Stephen Martin, gave a summation of Team Ireland's experience in Rio last year. He made some pointed observations and criticisms of the Games, stating that conditions in the Olympic Village were the worst he had ever seen at an Olympics. On another night, these would undoubtedly have prompted discussion, made headlines even, but not on this night. He did not mention Pat Hickey. He was not asked any questions from the floor.

General secretary Dermot Henihan was next. An experienced campaigner, he clearly had a sense the writing was on the wall. If he was going to go down, then it would be peacefully, but not quietly. He did mention Hickey: "We cannot forget the work he has done for the good of Irish Olympism over many years. As far as I am concerned, he is a great part of the OCI and it will always be a part of him." He added that he had no doubt that the former president would "clear his good name and have the charges made against him dismissed".

He also hit out at decisions taken in the wake of the Rio controversy which he said cost the OCI over €800,000 - a clear reference to the crisis committee which had comprised originally of Sarah Keane, Ciarán Ó Catháin and Robert Norwood. Again, there were no questions from the floor.

By this point it had become evident that the lack of questioning was not caused by apathy on the part of most delegates. They were biding their time. The election of officers was approaching and, barring something unforeseen, a new cast would soon be sitting at the top table.

The treasurer's report contained a breakdown of the €900,688 - the 'extraordinary expenditure' forced on the OCI in the wake of the ticketing controversy, and the news that just €90,498 had so far been recouped through an insurance policy. Legal fees at Arthur Cox amounted to €394,600, with further legal costs for staff and executive members currently running at €180,000. Still, the OCI has a healthy €1.5m in the bank - more than enough to be getting on with for now.

Once Sarah Keane was elected president, securing 29 of the 43 votes in a convincing win, the tone was set for the rest of the night. And so a new executive committee is in place with a clear mandate to overhaul the OCI's structures and practices.

It will be interesting to see what emerges. Keane will remain as chief executive of Swim Ireland so it is likely the role of OCI president will revert to a more traditional form, thus empowering its chief executive and staff to help revitalise what is widely agreed had become a dysfunctional set-up. It's easy to sneer, but we need good people in sports administration. Those who take part will always be the most important part of any organised sport, but we will always need people to organise, and to make sure proper pathways are in place to help every single person who takes part to realise their full potential.

With Keane and Sarah O'Shea - who has a reputation as a formidable and talented administrator from her time at the FAI - in the key positions of president and honorary secretary, expect this to happen quickly.

Over the years, we have let ourselves down. Too often, Irish sport has had the wrong focus, obsessing about the wrong things, but there is a mood for change now which extends beyond the OCI. Beneath the surface there is mounting frustration at many aspects of how sport in this country is organised.

There has been a shift in the last few years in the profile of those running our sporting organisations. And that shift was reflected in how the egm unfolded. Many of the national federations have been undergoing their own process of change and the hope now is that the rising tide will lift all boats.

All the talking had been done in advance of the meeting. In the weeks leading up to it, many of the more progressive federations had been talking to each other about the possibilities which lay ahead for a rebranded OCI under new leadership. They were excited by this opportunity, and in the aftermath of the meeting, some spoke of the untapped potential of a newly-unified organisation. The whole process appears to have brought many of the federations closer together - which is no bad thing.

Yes, some have been left behind, slower to acknowledge their own failings than others. But the reality is that sooner or later they will have to face up to the fact that they must modernise and update their organisations or face pretty severe consequences when it comes to funding and assistance.

The suspicion is that once the fuss dies down after last week's seismic events, Keane and the rest of the new-look OCI committee will slip out of public view for a while. There is work to be done.

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