Thursday 21 February 2019

Vincent Hogan: Time for real redeemer as Olympic torch is passed on to Keane

Sarah Keane. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Sarah Keane. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It wasn't quite a Rosa Parks on the bus moment, but you could still detect a faint frisson of emancipation in the air when Sarah Keane was confirmed as head of Ireland's Olympic family.

Whoops reverberated around the Conrad Hotel ballroom and, soon, her election had opened the sluice gates on revolution.

By night's end, the executive of the OCI bore a profoundly different profile and, accordingly, could claim a stirring mandate to change how the organisation conducts its business.

Almost exactly 16 years then after a soft-spoken sailing man wandered ill-prepared into much the same battle only to suffer humiliation, this mother of three essentially took a wrecking-ball to the old guard.

"There's no real victory in tonight," she told us, Thursday's EGM having finally concluded.

But the truth was she'd just left a room littered with the defeated. None more so than Willie O'Brien and Dermot Henihan, men with service to the OCI stretching back two decades, whose campaigns to remain on the executive had been met with withering rejection.

And behind the veil of routine courtesy and politesse that followed, there could be little doubt that this was a night when two starkly conflicting philosophies had collided.

Henihan's pre-election address as outgoing general secretary italicised that conflict, carrying as it did a lengthy tribute to Pat Hickey alongside a startling attack on the Crisis Management Committee (of which Keane was a member) he seemed to hold responsible for incurring "a lot of needless expenditure" in the fallout to the Rio ticketing controversy.

In other words, the group deployed to firefight that shambles was castigated, whilst delegates were asked to "keep in mind that Pat and his family have gone through a terrible trauma in all of this".

Loyalty to the former president rang out strongly from the speeches of all three outgoing officers only, it's fair to say, to be broadly met by a discernible shuffling of feet.

When Henihan finished his tribute to Hickey by thanking him "on behalf of the Olympic movement in Ireland", there were maybe two seconds of excruciating silence before a single handclap triggered a mild smattering of applause.

In his pomp, Hickey would work this kind of room with the nonchalant certainty of a man who knew the congregation. But his acolytes possessed neither that knowledge or cunning.

The voting against O'Brien and Henihan proved heavier than most had foreseen and, although treasurer William Kennedy was unopposed after Nicky Jermyn's withdrawal, 13 of the 42 votes cast were spoiled, presumably representing some form of protest.

Such bloodshed for the old guard would have been unimaginable prior to Hickey's arrest in Rio on August 17 last, accused by Brazilian police of "touting, forming a cartel and illicit marketing", and thus trip-wiring a process that Kennedy revealed has already cost the OCI "non-redeemable" fees of €394,600 to law firm Arthur Cox, and €214,900 to consultants, Grant Thornton.

These fees had even been softened by an agreed discount of €90,000 on the basis of immediate payment.

Such arithmetic is a considerable blow to an organisation that, prior to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, haplessly launched an advertising campaign to raise funds that brought in £740 punts at a cost of £2,000.

Hickey's election five years later would transform the OCI's financial acumen and, as Henihan pointed out in his speech, the Council was €2.3m in credit last August.

It remains to be seen how the strength of Keane's mandate for change is deployed now. Her new role is an unpaid one and she will continue in the position of CEO to Swim Ireland.

But when asked if repairing the OCI's image represented her biggest challenge, the new president was unequivocal.

"Absolutely," she agreed. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. I think the movement has been through a very difficult time over the last six months, but we've now got to look forward.

"You know, for me, there's no real pride in seeing other people leave after a period of time and being upset.

"But hopefully there's no apathy now. We've got to be honest and direct. We've got to work and earn respect.

"What we need to do now is deliver for Irish sport."

Precisely what that means is difficult to define given the OCI's relevance to athletes has become almost negligible between Olympiads.

But Sarah Keane has a real licence to make her mark here on an organisation that, for more than a quarter of a century, seemed forever in thrall to the personality of her predecessor.

For so long, Pat Hickey was the very axis of OCI business. The woman who replaces him now needs to be a redeemer.

The newly-elected OCI Board

President: Sarah Keane (Swimming)

Secretary: Sarah O'Shea (Snowsports)

Treasurer: William Kennedy (Cycling).

Executive committee members: Colm Barrington (Sailing), Robert Norwood (Snowsports), Georgina Drumm (Athletics), Ciaran Gallagher (Gymnastics), Robert Johnson (Hockey), Patrick John Nolan (Cycling), Darren O'Neill (Boxing), Denis Toomey (Paralympics), Lochlann Walsh (Triathlon)

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