Saturday 19 January 2019

Paul Kimmage: How did Pat Hickey become the most hated man in Irish sport?

As he languishes in jail, how did Pat Hickey become the most hated man in Irish sport?

Pat Hickey (above) is taken from the Hospital Samaritano Barra in a wheelchair to a waiting police car in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Brendan Moran
Pat Hickey (above) is taken from the Hospital Samaritano Barra in a wheelchair to a waiting police car in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Brendan Moran
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Hey, Felipe, that was you on Wednesday morning, right? Holding the camera as the police entered the lobby of the Windsor Marapendi hotel? Filming the pictures as they crossed the marble floors from reception to the elevators? Capturing the moment when they reached the executive floor and marched purposefully down the corridor to the bedroom door.

"Knock knock."

Well, Felipe, pardon my Portuguese but I just wanted to say "muito, muito, obrigado" - thank you very, very much for restoring my faith in Rio and making this my all-time favourite Olympic Games. Two weeks ago, I wanted nothing to do with that putrid circus and nothing - not Bolt, not Phelps, not Farah - was going to change that.

But "parabens pelo otimo trabalho" - congratulations on a great job - because the pictures, your pictures, made me almost wish I was there.

Nine cameramen out of ten would have settled for those stills of his passport and his accreditation badge, and the plump pillows of his lavishly furnished bedroom, and his first-class ticket - a snip at £12,000 - to Rio with BA. Not you, Felipe, you kept the camera rolling.

"Knock, knock."

The Bangu Prison where Hickey is being held. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Bangu Prison where Hickey is being held. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Pat Hickey opens the door:


A police officer steps forward with a warrant for his arrest:


Hickey is shocked:


He is also naked:

"Excuse me."

He retreats to the bathroom and searches for a robe.

And that's your moment of genius, Felipe, that's the moment that wins you the Oscar because nine guys out of ten would not have had the stomach for what happened next:

"Nunca mais."

No more.


That's enough.

Not you, Felipe. You've no idea who Pat Hickey is, or what the allegations are, but you've been watching these fat cats for a week, bleeding your country for money, lording it over your people - the cleaners and the volunteers - with their chauffeur-driven cars and lavish ($900) daily allowances. And it's this sense of injustice that keeps your finger on record and makes you follow him into the bathroom.

And maybe that's not fair, Felipe, but fair is not your business and it's only when the pictures go viral, and your phone starts ringing, that you realise you've just captured the enduring image of the Games - not Bolt, sprinting for another gold medal; not Phelps, making history in the pool; not Farah and his litany of dodgy coaches - but a wrinkled old man reaching for a bathrobe.

O seu flacido rabo branco.
His flabby white ass.
O emperador sem roupa.
The emperor with no clothes.

I, Patricus

Gibney showered the girl with attention. He promised her he would make her a star. He gave her gifts of swimming togs and tracksuits and hats and goggles. He hugged her every time she swam well. At the national championships, she streaked home first in four races. She was 16 years old and poised to be selected for the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.

Justine McCarthy
'Deep Deception'

In July 2001, Pat Hickey received a death threat from a group called the Liberation Army of Tibet, who were aggrieved that the IOC had just awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing. Why they chose to target the Irishman on the committee remains a mystery, but Hickey has always had a talent for rubbing people up the wrong way.

More than 400 athletes have represented Ireland at the Olympics since 1989, when Hickey became president of the OCI, but has there been a single expression of support for him last week? Not that I've seen. Our politicians don't like him; he has few friends at the Sports Council and is despised by the media. Which begs the question, I guess.

How did Pat Hickey become the most hated man in Irish sport?

Read more: Tommy Conlon: The embodiment of a dessicated ideal

The son of a clerk, he was born in 1945 and raised in the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro where his boyhood passion was judo. How good was he? Well, like pretty much everything with Hickey, that's a matter of some debate. In 1996, he told The Irish Times that he narrowly missed selection for the Montreal Olympics in 1976:

"There were two of us who were doing very well, but at the previous games, seven players were sent and they all lasted about 30 seconds each. So at the last minute the OCI decided not to send us."

This was news to Matt Folen, the national coach that year, who informed Paul Howard in a profile for The Sunday Tribune that Hickey hadn't even made the shortlist that year. But he certainly talked a great fight and was a natural politician.

In 1979, he was elected president of the Irish Judo Association and a year later was offered a place on the executive committee of the OCI, an "old boys' club" of mostly passive and genteel men whose past presidents included the 'Blueshirts' leader Eoin O'Duffy, an Irish peer, Lord Killanin, and a former Garda commissioner, Patrick Carroll.

Hickey was slightly rougher around the edges but impressed the committee immediately with his enthusiasm and energy. The late Des O'Sullivan, a shoeshop proprietor and the OCI president at the time, made some interesting comments once about the man who would succeed him.

"He was this cheeky fellow with obvious ambition," he said. "But we got on well together and he turned out to be the right man for the job. He brought his wife (Sylviane, a Frenchwoman) to a lot of fund-raising events, and she was a bloody great worker. A topper.

"Before one Olympic Games she was in my shop when the uniforms were delivered. She asked what I was going to do with them. I said I was going to get them ready for the athletes. She said, 'How can I help you?' This was a woman I barely even knew. So we made a date in my shop, and she brought the kids over to help and she had all of the suits organised in two hours."

Hickey's first taste of the Olympics was a dual role at Los Angeles in 1984 - manager of the judo team and the OCI's transport manager. In 1988, he was promoted to chef de mission at Seoul but he had his eyes on the president's job and within a year had taken over.

Brendan O'Connell, a two-time Olympic canoeist and a member of the executive, was a key ally at the time. "He outmanoeuvred the traditional big sports like athletics, cycling and boxing by realising that, when it came to elections, they had the same number of votes each as the small ones like table tennis, canoeing and judo. He would have sat those delegates down and said that they had to stick together or they would get squeezed by the bigger sports. It worked."

Barcelona was his first Olympics at the helm and he celebrated Michael Carruth's gold medal - the first for 32 years - by hectoring the politicians and highlighting the government's paltry spend on sport. That worked too. Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Finance, was booed off the platform when he turned-up for the homecoming, and four years later, when Atlanta came around, Hickey had a budget of £1.2m at his disposal.

"Even with the best will in the world, it was a crazy arrangement," O'Connell says. "We would get this £1m from the government and we had to decide how much we were giving to each different sport. But the committee was made up of volunteers and the administration was shockingly poor.

"We had neither the knowledge nor the resources, nor the research in place to know whether the federations were bullshitting us about what they needed the money for. Sometimes it came down to making a decision based on what we had read about the sport in the Irish Independent the week before."

But one point was undeniable: by 1995, Pat Hickey was the most powerful man in Irish sport. And then it slowly began to unravel.

The problems started midway through the year with a bizarre cooling of his relations with David Balbirnie, the former secretary of the Irish Hockey Union who had become, like O'Connell, a trusted friend and a key member of the OCI executive.

"My relationship with Pat went downhill after I went on a business-related trip to Atlanta," Balbirnie explained. "He was out of the country and wasn't aware of it but I could tell he was offended and his attitude towards me changed. It was like I had usurped his authority.

"That was probably mid-1995 and things just deteriorated. He started to dictate things to me - do this and do that. We had an argument over the phone about something. I told him, 'I'll do what I like, you're not going to lecture me'. After that, I knew my days were numbered."

The Atlanta Games were a mess. Hickey became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the athletics body, BLE, over clothing rights. He was also at war with the Minister for Sport, Bernard Allen, over funding. Questions were being asked about his stewardship in the press and some of the answers weren't flattering.

Then the writs started flying.

Paul Howard at The Sunday Tribune thinks he got at least two that year. David Walsh got his first ever at the Sunday Independent. There were few things Hickey enjoyed more than "putting people in their box" and over the years he sued or threatened to sue, among others: RTE, Today FM, Matt Cooper and the Irish Examiner.

Andrew Jennings, the celebrated author of Lord of the Rings, posted one letter he received after an interview on Today FM on his Twitter page on Friday: "Here's Hickey all bluster and lies threatening in 2000. He didn't like people knowing he'd enjoyed a golfing holiday paid for him by Atlanta. I replied with some version of FUCK OFF - never heard another word."

It wasn't just journalists.

Former athlete Paul Donovan received a solicitor's letter once because of correspondence he had sent to John Treacy during a row between the Athletes Commission and the OCI. The commission had been set up to harmonise relationships between the athletes and the OCI after the ugly war of words (Hickey had labelled them 'second rate') that had followed the Sydney Games.

In January 2001, the Commission was still in its infancy when Hickey's tenure as OCI president was challenged by Richard Burrows, the noted businessman and president of the Irish Sailing Association. Both candidates canvassed the Athletes Commission for support.

"We got a warning from Hickey - or what we perceived as a warning - that if we sided with the wrong guy and the other person got in, that person could make life very difficult for the Athletes Commission. He advised us to stay out of politics," Donovan said.

They came out for Burrows, Hickey was re-elected and life got difficult. "He wouldn't sign off on our constitution," Donovan said. "We were getting all this 'take it or leave it' stuff' and it was as if they had made a decision that they were going to decide who was going to be on the Commission, not the athletes."

They were given an ultimatum to comply or be disbanded but refused to sign and were deemed to no longer exist. In September 2002, when Donovan arrived for the OCI's AGM, he was turned away by security on the door. Delegates from three sports - sailing, canoeing and basketball - walked out in protest but Hickey was not for turning, and read out a statement saying the matter was sub judice and would not be discussed.

"I turned up at the AGM knowing I'd be turned away," O'Donovan said. "They had bouncers on the door ready to wrestle me away but I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to make the point that there were no athletes represented there."

Hickey has never cared much for athletes. He has never cared much for sport.

It has always been about the politics for him. The Rings. The power. The brand.

Three weeks ago, on the eve of the Rio Games, he defended the IOC's decision not to ban Russia and had some harsh words for Yuliya Stepanova, the most heroic whistleblower in the history of sport.

"She's a convicted doper," he said. 'She's one of those doped Russian athletes so she can't attend."

But it's his indifference to 'the girl' that will forever shame him.

Almost seven years have passed since we first cried for the girl in Deep Deception - Justine McCarthy's seminal account of Ireland's swimming scandal. The girl was five years old when she was raped for the first time by her best friend's grandfather.

It almost destroyed her. She struggled at school and was withdrawn and endured six years of darkness before she found a light - swimming. "It felt like I was flying," she told McCarthy. "Like I'd been freed. I put everything into it. I really focused. Within a year I was breaking Irish records and people were wondering who I was."

She was invited to join 'Trojans', the best club in Ireland and the home of George Gibney, the Olympic swimming coach. At a training camp in Florida, a year before the Barcelona games, he drove her to her hotel and raped her. She tried to kill herself. She told her parents, made a statement to the guards and instructed a solicitor, Timothy Ryan, to sue her abusers, the IASA (Swim Ireland) and the Olympic Council of Ireland. She also attended a counsellor to prepare herself to testify when Gibney was brought to trial. The year was 1997.

In 2004, two guards arrived at her door and informed her that the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided not to apply for Gibney's extradition from America. She watched them leave and walked to a local field. She reached for a scarf and hanged herself from a tree but was found just in time by a local priest.

Nothing was happening with the civil case. Curious, Justine checked the Courts Service records and discovered that Ryan had issued the proceedings as instructed but had never served them. The family found another solicitor and took a case against Ryan.

In July 2009, the proceedings against the IASA and the OCI - dormant for more than a decade - were revived by a High Court order. A request was made to have the case struck out. The High Court acquiesced - the delay was "inexcusable and inordinate" - and the OCI and IASA were awarded costs.

In December 2011, the girl reached a settlement with Ryan's insurers but was still being chased by the two sporting bodies for costs. They wanted €95,000. Justine was outraged and decided to email the OCI. She had a question for Pat Hickey: "How could he consider this pursuit to be morally justified?" He did not reply but set his solicitor loose.

"Put that woman back in her box."

He's in his own box now - a cell at Bangu Prison - and will have plenty of time to reflect on the unfairness of what has happened to him. But my sympathy is with the girl.

Read more: Olympic family looks away as Hickey walks into a perfect storm

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