Friday 18 October 2019

Elephant in the room shrouds committee but Moran Report unveils uncomfortable realities

Tickets of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games seized to one of the directors of THG Sports, a company of international business events and information group Marcus Evans, Irish Kevin James Mallon, are displayed during a press conference at the City Police's station in Benfica, north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 8, 2016. / AFP / TASSO MARCELO
Tickets of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games seized to one of the directors of THG Sports, a company of international business events and information group Marcus Evans, Irish Kevin James Mallon, are displayed during a press conference at the City Police's station in Benfica, north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 8, 2016. / AFP / TASSO MARCELO

John Greene

EIGHT years ago, Pat Hickey sat before an Oireachtas committee and let rip. And in those days — as in, all the days before Rio 2016 — when Pat Hickey let rip he took no prisoners. He didn’t hold back; he never held back.

On that May day, the Irish Sports Council was firmly in his sights. There was huge tension between the two organisations at the time. “To be perfectly frank, it is embarrassing to witness the limited progress the Irish Sports Council has made in the past 14 years in developing systems and structures to support our national federations,” he said early on, setting the tone for what was to come.

The Olympic Council of Ireland president added: “The Irish Sports Council is a quango which is prepared to bask in the glory of Ireland’s brilliant rugby Grand Slam, even though its contribution was minimal.

It is essentially a conduit for taxpayers’ money. At the same time, it is not short of trying to subsume Ireland’s Olympic national federations and even the OCI itself, as it tried to do — unsuccessfully — in 1996.

“The Irish Sports Council clearly believes in and uses chequebook politics and has no respect for the autonomy of the federations. It also extends its mantra to include, ‘Let us embed our nominees in your organisation if you want your grant.

You must use our publicity machine. We know what is best for your sport. Let us subsume you.’ All this is done in the guise of protecting the public purse.

No wonder the Olympic sports scene is filled with tension when the Irish Sports Council is mentioned. Its job is to enable sports organisations to do their job, not to take them over.”

There was more, a lot more. It was Hickey at his best (or worst, depending on your point of view), putting people on the back foot, dominating his territory, and protecting his Olympic ideals.

The politicians lapped it up. “I suppose I speak for everybody when I say we are a bit gobsmacked by that presentation,” said Olivia Mitchell, presumably speaking for everybody.

“In a way, I welcome Mr Hickey’s honesty because, as he rightly said, the Irish Sports Council appeared before the joint committee and we were left no wiser as to the perceived tensions that gave rise to us inviting in the Olympic Council of Ireland.”

So here we had a senior politician welcoming Hickey’s “honesty”. Another, Cyprian Brady, thanked him for his “very frank and forthright presentation.” And on it went.

Over two days last week, the successors to that group of politicians on the Oireachtas committee with responsibility for sport parsed the Moran Report into the Rio ticketing scandal.

They did so at length in private session; with the current sports minister, Shane Ross, and minister of state, Brendan Griffin; with John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey of Sport Ireland (formerly the aforementioned Irish Sports Council), and with Hickey’s successor Sarah Keane, and the OCI’s new Honorary General Secretary, Sarah O’Shea.

The questioning and probing was good — sometimes very good. Despite criticisms to the contrary, the revelations in the report are extraordinary, particularly when describing the lengths gone to to disguise the continuing involvement of THG as the OCI’s ticketing agent for Rio against the clear instructions of the local organising committee and also, as Minister Ross said on Thursday, “the exposure of disgraceful behaviour towards the athletes and their families” who were trying to get tickets for the Games.

They (athletes and their families) struggled to make contact with Pro10, the company now known to be a front for THG, and those who did found that tickets were almost impossible to come by.

And yet, when Kevin Mallon of THG was arrested in Rio last August, he was found to be in possession of over 800 tickets, which some have estimated to have been worth around US$10m. There were also a further 223 tickets in an OCI safe in the Olympic Village.

Tickets which had been specifically earmarked for family members of athletes had been passed on to Pro10 to be sold.

Judge Carroll Moran has compiled a narrative that goes a long way to making sense of what happened in Rio 12 months ago, and what had happened in the background in the months and years leading up to it.

It paints a picture of an organisation in which governance had been turned on its head. As the minister noted, “it was a corporate governance jungle.”

Yes, there are gaps, and the fact that so many of the key players felt they could not co-operate so long as criminal charges hang over Hickey in Rio, charges he has every intention of defending, means the report is, in ways, incomplete. Hickey is said to be fully focused on clearing his name.

Still, the report is a worthy one, and a useful step on the long road to recovery for the OCI.

Since its publication on Monday, it has emerged that the relationship between the OCI and THG, the group run by Marcus Evans, runs much deeper than even the report had managed to establish.

Sarah Keane revealed that signed contracts had been discovered last month which appear to bind the OCI to THG for all summer and winter Olympics up to and including 2026.

Keane has been under intense pressure in recent months as the scale of the problems at the OCI have become clearer, but she is convincing many that she has what it takes to lead the organisation down a new path.

In her opening remarks on Friday, she said: “The new OCI board has been working hard since its election six months ago to drive a much-needed, rigorous reform agenda at the OCI.

The board is committed to root and branch reform of the organisation, making it more athlete-centred and putting the highest governance standards in place. We are committed to the true values of the Olympic movement and we are determined to rebuild the reputation of the OCI in the eyes of both the athletes and the Irish sporting public; a reputation which has taken a hammering over the past 12 months.”

Repeatedly, the Oireachtas committee members wondered aloud last week why something hadn’t been done sooner. How had Hickey been allowed to continue running the rule over, as Frank Feighan said, “his own personal fiefdom”?

It was, said Robert Troy, “a sad reflection on ourselves and our checks and balances that we relied upon another jurisdiction, which probably wouldn’t be held in the highest esteem as being the most honourable country in terms of doing business. Yet it took that jurisdiction to highlight the gross inadequacies of the OCI.”

And there it was laid bare — the inescapable truth: Hickey had been hiding in plain sight all along. He was one of us; he was our creation, as unpalatable as that may be.

Perhaps Dermot Henihan, then the Honorary General Secretary, summed up the general malaise best when talking to the Moran inquiry about the reaction of the OCI executive to the first deal with THG for the London Games: “Like, we were just happy that someone was giving us a good fee to do this . . . there would be 12 of us sitting around the table and when it would be announced, or whatever way you want to put it, that we had got this money, our rights for our ATR (Authorised Ticket Reseller), everybody would be happy and there would be no complaints.”

So when John Treacy, perhaps showing a hint of frustration on Friday, recalled that May day when Hickey held court with the committee’s predecessors, and said that the OCI should have a representative on the then sports council, you could almost hear the sound of the penny dropping. The OCI subsequently received a seat on the sports council board.

As with the Moran report, the absence of Hickey for the hearings meant we did not get any closer to filling in some of the gaps. He cited legal reasons, and the ongoing case in Rio, as well as his right not to self-incriminate, among his reasons for non-attendance.

The committee, however, is now exploring avenues to compel him to appear before it. According to sources, committee members believe that the revelations about the contracts with THG to 2026 have nothing to do with the criminal proceedings in Brazil, which means they can seek to question the former OCI president on this matter.

The committee chair Fergus O’Dowd has indicated it will meet in the coming weeks to pursue this line further.

There is no doubt Hickey’s absence rankled. “He should be here,” said Ross, “he should be here to answer questions.” As it turned out, the elephant in the room was that the elephant wasn’t in the room.

Sunday Independent

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