Friday 24 May 2019

We are committed to restoring OCI's reputation - Keane

Sarah Keane in thoughtful mood during the OCI Strategic Plan media briefing in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sarah Keane in thoughtful mood during the OCI Strategic Plan media briefing in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

During her 10 months at the helm at the Olympic Council of Ireland, there's a phrase Sarah Keane has repeated often, whether to herself or colleagues, as she tries to navigate the OCI out of rocky waters.

"The comfort zone is a beautiful place," she said, "but nothing ever grows there."

Having taken the reins from Pat Hickey as OCI president in the wake of an investigation into the ticketing scandal at the Rio Olympics, Keane never expected a placid induction period - not that she wanted one.


Because through her many years in the upper echelons of sports governance - Keane is currently CEO of Swim Ireland - she was aware of how radical a change was needed for the OCI to regain credibility.

Ahead of last night's EGM in Abbotstown, where OCI members voted in a series of changes in term limits and governance procedures, Keane outlined a seven-year strategic plan which, she hopes, will remove the cloak of opacity that causes many athletes to ask: what does the OCI actually do?

"We can't always expect to be in a good place," said Keane.

"It's been a really tough year for everyone involved in the Irish Olympic movement but we can't wait around. Some of those athletes competing (at the winter Olympics) in 2018 won't be around for 2022 so we have to do all this so those athletes have their time."

And what does 'all this' represent?

Much of the change can be traced to the 25 recommendations made in the Deloitte report last year, commissioned by the OCI to assess its governance in the wake of the Rio scandal.

Earlier this year 17 of the 25 recommendations were implemented at the OCI AGM, and at last night's EGM another five were added. The key change is that members of the executive will no longer be able to serve more than eight years in total, which would prevent a single person gaining the kind of long-term power held by Hickey, who spent 27 years as president before his resignation following his arrest in Rio last year.

However, a proposal by the OCI that its sole member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not automatically sit on its board or have a voting right has been rejected by the IOC as in breach of the Olympic Charter.

Its sole IOC member, of course, is Hickey, who resigned from the executive board of the IOC in September but stayed on as an ordinary member, a position the 72-year-old is unlikely to surrender as he awaits trial on ticket touting charges.

"The board is uncomfortable with the situation," said Keane. "The idea that one person could be there for 20 or 30 years, when everyone else could only be there for eight, doesn't sit well with the OCI."

However, the OCI and IOC have a lot more in common than Pat Hickey. Both have seen their credibility eroded in recent years, alongside public faith in the Olympic movement itself, but Keane is adamant that it remains a concept worth fighting for.

"We believe Olympic sport does change lives and that's the reason we're sitting here," she said.

"I talk to athletes all the time and an awful lot of our younger athletes believe in the movement, believe in being an Olympian."

It was put to Keane yesterday that the OCI brand now has a certain toxicity, and while that may be a slightly harsh assessment given its recent progress, there's no denying it has yet to dispel the unpleasant whiff that's been hanging in the air since Rio.

Earlier this year it was revealed the fallout from Hickey's arrest had cost the OCI in excess of €800,000, and, though Keane admitted the OCI will rack up a substantial deficit this year, she's planning for it to become financially independent in the coming years through a combination of investing its own reserves and recruiting commercial sponsors.

"The OCI has always had substantial reserves, which is one of the reasons we've been able to pay these huge bills over the last year," she said.


"We'll be looking at what is the right amount to hold in reserve and then the rest will be going back into sport."

The OCI is also set to benefit from IOC investment to the tune of close to €2m for the upcoming Olympic cycle, while in recent weeks it was announced that 12 young Irish sportspeople would receive Olympic solidarity scholarships - some of which are paid for by the IOC, others by the OCI.

And, while the sums that trickle down to athletes may seem like loose change compared with the wads that change hands among IOC executives, it's certainly a start.

The OCI, meanwhile, is moving to redress the imbalance of power between athlete and administrator with the development of its Athletes Commission - a nine-strong assembly of retired Olympians who will ensure current athletes have a voice at each stage in the OCI's decision-making process.

It may be too early in Keane's term to judge her success, but if she has one trait that was sorely lacking in her predecessor, it is humility.

Yesterday she acknowledged that words alone will only do so much to restore credibility.

"The (OCI's) reputation is not ours, it's the public's, so you all decide what state the reputation is in," she said.

"We have to earn that and we're committed to doing that, but we realise it's going to take time."

Irish Independent

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