Sunday 19 November 2017

Rumble in Rio to find answers to ticket fiasco

As Kevin Mallon waits in jail, the Olympic ticket row is heading towards a political showdown

OCI boss Pat Hickey. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
OCI boss Pat Hickey. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

As Ireland's new Olympic heroes rowed their way to a silver medal in Rio on Friday, a lawyer attempted to navigate the red tape to get to see her Irish client languishing in a cell in the teeming Brazilian city.

The contrasting fortunes of the O'Donovan brothers from Skibbereen and the sports executive Kevin Mallon at the 2016 Olympics is stark. The O'Donovan brothers were in Rio to make their Olympic dreams come true; Mallon was in Rio to help the clients of his company, THG Sports, witness such thrilling Olympic spectacles.

The company Mallon works for is no longer an authorised ticket reseller for Ireland - that relationship ended in 2014 - but according to a statement, its sells tickets as part of an Olympic "hospitality package" in accordance with the rules and regulations. The Brazilian authorities, however, do not agree.

And so it is that the 36-year-old sports executive from Drimnagh in Dublin has ended up in custody for nine days now over allegations of illegal ticket sales.

Finding himself behind bars is no doubt a shocking turn of events for Mallon, whom THG has described as a valued staff member and financial director. Mallon is listed as a director of several companies owned by THG's parent - the sporting event empire the Marcus Evans Group, which also owns Ipswich Town football club.

Mallon is reportedly married with a young family, living quietly in a settled residential area of the city.

Read more: Irishman arrested over alleged touting of Irish Olympic tickets acting as a 'collection contact'

But the tickets scandal, coupled with boxer Michael O'Reilly's failed dope test, cast a dark shadow over Ireland's contribution in the opening week of the Olympic Games. Despite the uplift of the O'Donovan brothers, it seems the stage is now set for a showdown between politicians and the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). The head of the Public Accounts Committee described the Council's reaction to the ticket scandal as "a joke". Several TDs have said they should be called before an Oireachtas Committee.

The Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, has weighed in heavy with a list of demands that he has emailed to the OCI, including releasing details of any financial arrangements it has with Pro 10 Sports, the authorised ticket reseller. The first bout will take place at a meeting in Rio today between Ross, hot off a plane from Ireland, and Pat Hickey, the Olympic Council's longstanding president who has seen off numerous sports ministers in the past.

On the night of the grand opening of the Games, August 5, Kevin Mallon was reportedly in the Maracana Stadium in Rio, in the company of a translator, when police approached and apprehended him.

They went his nearby apartment hotel to search his room. Police later released photographs of officers searching through documents placed by the television in his room. Others showed police holding bundles of Olympic tickets, held together with elastic bands. Some clearly bore the logo of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

There were 813 tickets in all, including some for the coveted opening and closing ceremonies, which police claimed were to be sold on at "hugely inflated prices". Laptops and phones were also seized.

Inspector Ricardo Barbosa, of Rio police's fraud unit, was reported as saying that the combined price of the tickets was up to €3m. One family allegedly bought 10 tickets for more than €70,000. According to Barbosa, several "victims" had tipped off police about the sale, after buying allegedly unauthorised tickets.

According to news reports, it was the police who noted in their statement that, in 2014, the chief executive of THG, James Sinton, was detained in Rio de Janeiro and accused of forming part of a "ticketing mafia" for the World Cup in 2014.

Here was THG again, in another ticketing scandal. So how had tickets allocated to the OCI through its authorised ticket reseller allegedly ended up in the hotel room of the finance director of an Irish-based, UK owned, sports hospitality company?

Tickets for the Olympic Games are big business. Every year around six million or so tickets go on sale around the world through authorised sellers that are appointed by the local Olympic councils in member countries. For the 2012 Olympics in London, the OCI had selected THG as its authorised ticket reseller. Pat Hickey's son, Stephan, worked briefly for TGH at the time running a bar, but left after London and is no longer associated with them. There is no suggestion that he or his father are implicated in the current scandal.

For Rio 2016, the OCI selected a relatively new company on the block - Pro 10 Sports Management, which was founded last year according to company records. Its parent company is Kmepro, which was also set up last year, and its three directors are Ken Murray, Eamonn Collins, and Michael Glynn. Aside from being the Olympics' authorised ticket agent here, Pro 10 Sports has also organised numerous corporate sporting events.

When news of Mallon's arrest first broke last week, Pro 10 Sports, which is based in Lucan, issued a short statement insisting that no breach occurred. The OCI said it was looking into it.

On Thursday, Pat Hickey gave in to calls for a public statement by giving an interview on RTE, but he was unable to shed any further light on what had occurred. The OCI had instigated its own investigation, and had requested all the information the Brazilian authorities had.

But, as of Thursday night's interview, he had "no idea" how tickets had ended up with THG in Brazil. THG was no longer the authorised reseller (ATR) for Ireland and had not been involved with ticketing for the OCI since the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.

"What happens with the tickets is, we don't handle them whatsoever . . . and Pro 10, the tickets are issued to Pro 10, not by us, but by Rio 2016, so we never handle tickets whatsoever . . . so you'd want to refer that question to Pro 10," he said.

As for Mallon, he added he had never met him and "to my knowledge, none of the staff of the OCI have ever met him".

On Friday morning, Donovan Ferretti, the director of ticketing for Rio, piled on more pressure in an interview on RTE, saying it had not received a response to its questions.

This prompted Pro 10 to issue its second statement of the week. It said the directors of PRO 10 were cooperating "fully and promptly" with the Brazilian authorities and had, in fact, replied to Ferretti's questions the previous Wednesday. 

Read more: PRO 10: 'Irishman arrested over alleged touting was acting for us'

The statement also offered for the first time an explanation for how its tickets ended up with a THG employee in Rio - in short, Kevin Mallon took Pro 10's tickets with him to Rio, so that their customers could collect them at the Games.

As Pro 10 explained to Mr Ferretti, "the tickets Mr Kevin Mallon, an employee of THG group, had in his possession were held on our behalf to be made available simply for collection by Irish and other European customers of Pro 10 in Rio.

"These had been made available for sale through the authorised ATR process and were sold to legitimate customers of Pro 10 at face value, plus the allowed ATR reseller fee."

According to one source, Pro 10 is a small business that does not have staff in Rio, and thought the safest method of delivery was to entrust them to Mallon, who was travelling there anyway. It was a favour for which he wasn't paid, said a source. It is not clear how many of the 813 tickets belonged to Pro 10, but it claims to have suffered a "significant commercial loss" as a result of the whole affair.

The seized tickets have been cancelled, and Irish and European customers, who bought tickets from the company, are now "unable to buy tickets through the authorised process".

There is no shortage of tickets, however. About a fifth of the tickets reportedly remain unsold, for a variety of reasons. Brazil is in the throes of recession and the prevalence of the Zika virus has put some foreigners off travelling.

Pro 10 is consulting its lawyers. So is THG - at least Brazilian ones - in an effort to secure Mallon's release from prison. He has not yet been formally charged and the courts are not due to open for at least a week, while THG refutes any allegation of wrongdoing. Some of the accusations levelled against him - such as selling the tickets at more than face value - carry the threat of a prison sentence.

Kevin Mallon may learn his fate this week. But the looming showdown the fiasco has triggered between the OCI and the political establishment is unlikely to end with the closing ceremony in Rio.

Sunday Independent

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