Saturday 20 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Olympic family looks away as Hickey walks into a perfect storm

OCI president humiliated by a police force eager to make a statement to angry Brazilian people

Pat Hickey at the 2015 European Games in Baku as President of the European Olympic Committees. Photo: Getty/AFP
Pat Hickey at the 2015 European Games in Baku as President of the European Olympic Committees. Photo: Getty/AFP
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Pat Hickey's rotten luck this week was to fall under the microscope of indignant police in an angry city. That much we now know. But around the time they were acquainting him with the bad news on Wednesday morning, most of us on media duty in the Olympic city imagined an IOC arrest was as improbable as the celebration of a sailing champion from the rubbled favela they so grandiosely call Cidade de Deus.

"Maybe you could make a few calls," the newsroom voice suggested hopefully.

Just gone 7.30am and my mobile was already getting hotter than a vat of decaying plutonium. Rio may have been still wiping the sleep from its eyes, but the biggest story of Ireland's Olympics had already run its opening reel.

Make a few phone calls? Nope, just switch on the television.

As a remarkable day unspooled, it began to dawn that investigative journalism in Brazil had none of the concealment or furtiveness we might associate with a white collar sting at home. Hard-pressed to get their salaries, the police descended upon the Windsor Marapendi Hotel determined to make a show.

Accompanying them, they brought journalists from ESPN, Veja magazine and national newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo. The latter was represented by Jamil Chade, a gentle, bespectacled writer based in Geneva, but someone who has worked with and for the police here in shining a stark light on FIFA and IOC bigwigs.

Wednesday's sting was, above all, about coverage then.

Not long before these games began, some police took themselves to the international airport, holding up banners in the arrivals hall, declaring 'WELCOME TO HELL!' That's what an empty bank account will do, even to the guardians of justice. So here they had their opportunity to make a statement that might register with their people.

Most Cariocas palpably resent the big show now being held in a country that is flat broke. They consider it indecent. Taking an IOC executive out of his gilded environment might at least deliver a message to their people that the men in uniform are worth paying.

But precisely how they did that wasn't especially edifying.

By Wednesday night, even Chade was expressing disquiet with the starkness of humiliation visited upon 71-year-old Hickey. The widespread broadcast of his naked form retreating to the bathroom for his robe was neither illuminating nor necessary, yet reflected an atmosphere here bordering on vindictive resentment towards the big show.

Four years ago, that peepshow simply wouldn't have been countenanced. But Brazil was a kinder country then. Today, it rattles with anger.

So a shaven-headed Hickey sits in Bangu Penitentiary Complex today, in a sense, because he was caught in the perfect storm. Brazil has been squeezing tighter and tighter around the issue of ticket touting and, slowly, getting better at the job. "Where are all the tickets going?" ask their people, peering in at empty stadia.

And the answers have led to unexpected places. In total, 12,000 tickets have been confiscated at these Games, 1,000 of which are connected to the story that brought about Irish arrests. This is an operation stretching back to the 2014 World Cup, but one that has grown from slapstick amateurism to clinical intelligence. To begin with, the police did not even understand that all tickets bore a code which would identify where they had originated.

Chade explained: "The police did not even know English. So, they tapped people and couldn't understand what they were tapping. They didn't know who was who at FIFA. So actually, there was work that we [the journalists] had to do."

The arrest started with small-time touts outside the Maracana, a poorly-resourced operation run from a single police station. Soon realising that one tout would simply be replaced by another, the police changed tack and, instead of arrests, they began to buy.

Each day, they went with more extravagant demands, climaxing at that World Cup with a request for 50 tickets for the final. The tout's answer opened their eyes to the status of scalper they might now be indirectly engaging with.

"No problem," he replied.

All of this was happening then in Rio two years before Hickey and IOC friends touched down, business-class, in the Olympic city.

"In 2014, it was very disorganised," explained Chade. "Ridiculously so. The guy they were looking for [Ray Whelan] actually managed to escape, going through the back door of the hotel. The back door meaning the door of the garbage. He left with the garbage, that was incredible. The police asked for the video tapes of the hotel and the hotel had huge problems because they were basically helping a fugitive.

"They did the raid at 2.0 in the afternoon. Silly. You do this early in the morning. And they would tap inconsequential things.

"You would listen and it had nothing to do with the story. This was different. This time, they knew what they were doing."

The access to instant detail, the close-ups of Hickey's accreditation, his flight tickets even, the divulgence of what was in emails, all of this had come spooling out within hours of that first knock on the OCI president's hotel door.

Even the gentle wild goose chase the police had initially been sent on, prompting a thorough search of the Windsor Marapendi before Hickey's apprehension in an adjoining room to the one they first called to, all of that was laid bare for public consumption by the arresting officer.

It all ran bleakly counter to the distance the IOC were already putting between themselves and this rather squalid story now festering on their doorstep. And by Friday, almost certainly under prompting from Lausanne, the OCI themselves - the body of which Hickey has been boss for 28 years - was doing likewise.

Read more: Rio controversy: From 5-star luxury to prison

As of yesterday, Thomas Bach - the IOC president who'd sat directly in front of Hickey at the August 2 opening ceremony - had said precisely nothing on his friend's arrest.

Pat Hickey had simply walked into the perfect Brazilian storm here, turning to find that his Olympic 'family' was, quite pointedly, looking the other way.

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