Pat Hickey: 'We are expecting to see a new generation of Irish stars emerge'
Pat Hickey's push for a European Games in 2015 has made him a popular man
It's a miserable wet Friday in Rome and away from the hectic evening rush one man finds himself the centre of attention in the grand room of a plush hotel on the outskirts of the city.
It's the sort of hotel where €30 just about gets you a packet of Pringles and a sparkling water. It's the sort of hotel the great and the good of the Olympic movement have become used to. The next day, this man will shake hands with the Pope.
But first things first: it's the European Olympic Committees' General Assembly and Pat Hickey is to be returned unopposed as president. And the great and the good of the Olympic movement are queueing up to sing the Dubliner's praises. "My dear friend" is heard more than once, including from the newly-elected International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, freshly arrived from South Korea.
Hickey is a divisive figure in Irish sport; he has had his share of high-profile rows over the years. But here, on this grand occasion, he is clearly among friends, and supporters. A prophet is never recognised in his homeland, according to the Bible.
"What you see is what you get with Pat," says Sebastian Coe, the man responsible for the successful London Olympic Games. "He wouldn't say anything behind your back that he wouldn't say to your face," he adds when asked about Hickey's popularity.
Although being a straight shooter has helped Hickey along the way, his journey to the top of the EOC came as these things often do, through a combination of determination and a bit of luck.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Hickey was the Irish delegate to the EOC. 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," recalls Hickey. "At the time there was a great sports minister in Ireland, Frank Fahey, and he gave us a few bob. 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 at that meeting and was elected. Over the years he has moved up the ranks – senior executive board member of the IOC, senior vice-president of the Association of National Olympic Committees and president of the EOC.
Being Irish helped him on his journey through the world of sports politics, he says. "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."
However, Hickey's popularity doesn't stretch back to Ireland. The man who has been OCI president since 1989, and who has seen off all-comers in that time, jokes he's a bit like Roy Keane: half of the country like him and the other half don't. His view is that it dates back to the fallout from the Sydney Olympics.
"I was very vocal. I attacked the government, I really lashed into them and a lot of the establishment didn't like that. I'm at the stage where there is no one attacking me, they are probably saying 'leave him alone it's not worth it because you will get defeated'!"
Hickey has big plans for the future, starting with the first European Games, scheduled for June 2015 in Azerbaijan, which is very much his project. So far 18 different sports are confirmed for these Games, which means around 6,000 athletes will compete in Baku.
"I won't claim the idea of it but I will claim the implementation of it. The president of the Croatian Olympic Committee, who is the former prime minister of the country, came to me about it and then the president of the International Judo Federation, which is my own sport, also suggested it. I felt there was something in it. There is a huge Pan-American Games, a huge Asian Games, a huge African Games, and we are the only continent with no games."
It was tried before by Jacques Rogge when he was president of the EOC but it didn't get off the ground. Finances and the busy calendar were blamed. These obstacles still exist and Hickey has met a lot of resistance in his quest to make the Games happen. "I met a lot of opposition from international federations. They gave the excuse that the calendar was too busy but what they were worried about is that we would take significant sponsorship away from those federations.
"A multi-sport event is very attractive for sponsors and television because they get athletes from 18 or 19 different sports. It's like us going to the Olympics, we were sponsored by Electric Ireland for London and they got everyone from boxing to athletics. If you put all your money into one athlete or sport and it doesn't work, you could be in trouble."
The economic crisis almost put paid to the plan because countries just could not afford to stage the Games, but Hickey persevered and last year he was invited to Baku for the Eurovision Song Contest. While there he floated the idea of them hosting the European Games.
"Azerbaijan is next door to Iran. They are very proud, they want to be European not Asian and they thought the European Song Contest was the best thing ever to make them European. So I sold them this idea about the European Games with 6,000 athletes coming and 18 sports. They went away and thought about it, studied it and came back and said 'we are fully on board'."
So the Games got the nod with Baku as hosts. They will have individual and team sports including boxing, triathlon, swimming, cycling and badminton. Athletics have their own European Championships so are yet to confirm their participation.
Irishman Pierce O'Callaghan, who has worked at Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, led the negotiations with the European Federations and has now taken up the role of sports director for the European Games based in Baku for the next two years.
"Pat Hickey has done his homework and over the past 20 years the medals won by European nations at Olympic Games has fallen from 75 per cent in 1988 to around 40 per cent by 2008," explains O'Callaghan. "This has had a negative knock-on effect on funding for athletes, motivation for younger athletes and the profile of Olympic sport generally in nations including Ireland.
"We know the equation is simple: medals equals increased profile equals increased government funding and sponsorship, and the European Games will provide a welcome boost for Ireland and other European Nations, especially with the next two Olympics taking place far from Europe in Brazil and Japan.
"We live in a big world of over 200 nations all vying for success at the Olympic Games and although we do punch above our weight from time to time, we are far more competitive at a European level, and in Baku 2015 we are expecting to see a new generation of Irish sports stars emerge on the road to Rio 2016."
Undoubtedly the facilities and the infrastructure will be state of the art thanks to an abundance of oil money and Ireland looks set to be well represented. Katie Taylor has confirmed that the European Games are part of her plans.
The host nation is paying for flights, accommodation and food for all the competitors and is also giving each national committee €100,000 for pre-Games training. Is it any wonder Hickey was so feted in Rome last weekend?
As well as being beneficial to the individual countries, the deal is also a welcome development for the EOC. "The EOC was totally dependent on finance from the IOC, we get a grant. A dividend from them every four years and we had to live off that. I hated that because you are always at their mercy. You are a pauper. And this deal now has made us financially self-sufficient."