Saturday 15 December 2018

Vincent Hogan: Pat Hickey - the high flier who calls David Cameron and Vladimir Putin 'his family'

Pat Hickey at the 2015 European Games in Baku. Photo: Jack Guez
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On a profoundly bleak morning in the Olympic city, they stopped just short of placing a director with loud hailer and high chair in the corridor outside Pat Hickey's room at the Windsor Marapendi Hotel.

Discretion is not written into a law-enforcement contract here and, so, the searing indignity of his arraignment had already been broadcast on ESPN Brazil by the time he was reaching for his bathroom robe. Dismayingly well practised in the apprehension of public figures, Rio's police do not regard a pending arrest as any kind of classified information.

They make their calls, they put on a show.

So Hickey's humiliation played out to a prurient audience, unedited, unfiltered, pitiless. The pathetic image of a naked, 71-year-old Irishman turning back, visibly shaken, towards his six-star hotel room will forever more be up there in the files of Olympic infamy beside that of a black man with yellow eyes being frog-marched from a room in Seoul 28 years ago.

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And the more detail that unspooled, the more relentless the study in embarrassment.

They placed his passport, accreditation and flight tickets alongside his tablets on a police station table, the arresting officer - Marcus Maia - offering the minutest detail on Hickey's apprehension. His wife, the court heard, had told Maia: "I haven't any contact with him."

But they'd seen his shoes, his clothes, his accreditation and asked the hotel manager to help them in their search. "We found him in another room," he said.

Maybe you need to know Pat Hickey to sense how these images so utterly decommission one of the most carefully cultivated images in Irish sport. Hickey likes to portray himself a man of swagger, an administrator with few peers from a country he has, essentially, outgrown.

He has fought many political wars during his 28 years as Olympic Council of Ireland President and likes to tell people that he has yet to end up with a bloody nose. In many respects, this is true. Over the years, a lot of earnest people picked naive fights with Patrick Hickey only to find they had blundered into the woods behind a bear.

Pat Hickey along with silver medal winner Annalise Murphy and Sports Minister Shane Ross on Tuesday
Pat Hickey along with silver medal winner Annalise Murphy and Sports Minister Shane Ross on Tuesday

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During the London Games four years ago, I interviewed him at the opulent Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, where the International Olympic Committee were based. He was in ebullient form, talking of having an office in the nearby Intercontinental Hotel for "meetings with Olympic committees from around Europe", yet never allowing that schedule impinge upon his support of Irish competitors.


And he told me that one of his favourite moments in London had been being invited to accompany Vladimir Putin and David Cameron to the judo hall.

"A great day," said Hickey, claiming to know Putin "very well".

He enthused: "What a day in the judo hall with Cameron and Putin. That's my family, you're with friends."

Back then, he said that he planned to step down as OCI President in early 2014. "There is a time to get out of everything . . . before you're carried out," he laughed.

As we chatted, Hickey placed a credit card on the table, ordered himself a smoked salmon platter and invited me to "order anything you want". As a member of the 15-person International Olympic Committee Executive, Hickey describes himself as "a volunteer", yet an Executive life is a gilded one of first-class flights, sumptuous hotels and fine dining in restaurants with heavy table linen.

It has been revealed that Executive members here in Rio get a cash per diem of $900 for every day spent on duty.

Seating arrangements at an Olympics Opening Ceremony tend to reflect status within the IOC 'family' and, on August 2, his positioning directly behind President Thomas Bach indicated a seniority this son of Phibsboro would covet.

Yet, few families close ranks better than that of Olympia and, yesterday, the IOC's response to Hickey's arrest was a blur of modulated voices and ingested protocol. Their daily briefing in The Samba Room of the Main Press Centre made clear a desire that this would be viewed as a local difficulty, not theirs.

Asked if the IOC might provide legal assistance to Hickey, their head of communications, Mark Adams, suggested flatly that he presumed such assistance would be the responsibility of the OCI. He effected a kind of calculated indifference for the grubby story unfolding a few kilometres away in a Jacare police station.

And Hickey will know precisely how this now works within the Olympic family.

The journalist who broke yesterday's story had his accreditation for access to the IOC hotel immediately revoked and, when it was confirmed that their European President was charged with "crimes of touting, forming a cartel and illicit marketing", Adams made clear a desire to move on to other business.

The charges against Hickey could, notionally, bring a seven-year prison sentence, albeit that is considered unlikely for someone of his years.

He was taken ill during the course of his arrest and certainly looked every hour of his 71 years in the images trending on Twitter yesterday. Ordinarily a man of robust good health, who talks of going for a run in the Phoenix Park "four or five times a week", he is a naturally pugnacious figure for whom yesterday's images would have been inconceivable just two weeks ago as - in a clearly rehearsed-for-television gesture - he rose to his feet, welcoming Ireland's Olympians into the Maracana.

A judo black belt, his rise to power within the Olympic movement was built on nurturing relationships with the more obscure Olympic sports like his own, Hickey building relationships with people who had, hitherto, been ignored.

Under his leadership, the personality of the OCI has changed profoundly. He has been President now 28 years and likes to remind people that theirs is a body that does not depend upon Government funding. "We always want to make sure we're totally independent," he told me that day in London.


This is a body that once took commissioned an ill-fated advertising campaign to raise funds prior to the '84 Games in Los Angeles. The campaign, costing 2,000 Irish punts, raised a paltry £740.

When Hickey replaced Des O'Sullivan as OCI President, he set about ensuring a far more robust financial plan that allowed them, essentially, work without - as he would see it - outside interference.

Such independence has emboldened him through an often acrimonious history of engagement with Irish sports ministers including, most recently, Shane Ross.

"The man who tried to wipe us out was Bernard Allen back in '96 after the Atlanta Games," he told me in London. "There's not a doubt in my mind that the creation of the Irish Sports Council was to subsume the OCI. It was all-out war. But the Olympic regulations say that an Olympic council must be free of all political and religious influence and must not be controlled by government.

"He [Allen] tried to rail-road that through!

"Then Sydney came along in 2000 with [Jim] McDaid. He didn't want to subsume the OCI, he just wanted to subsume me and wipe me off the face of the earth. He was a guy who 'It was my way or the highway . . .' And I wouldn't accept any of his nonsense. He thought I was answerable to him.

"A decision was made around that time to get rid of me from the OCI. They felt sure they could do it."

That story of how a genteel sailing man tried to wrestle Olympic power from a natural street-fighter like Hickey runs to the very heart of how he sees himself in the business of survival. Whilst Burrows shook plenty of hands and spoke softly of revolution, Hickey just worked the arithmetic.

"It's my view that Richard Burrows was being used," he told me that day four years ago.

"I told him 'Richard, you've no chance of winning this election! You live in Paris, you don't mix with the other sports, you don't even know them. How do you expect to win?'

"All the sports were leaned on to vote for Burrows. We had evidence of meetings happening in certain midland towns, eight to 10 federations called and told 'You must vote for Burrows! Vote for Hickey and your grant will be affected next year'.

"They all said they'd vote for Burrows, then voted for me. People remember how you treat them. It was a slaughterhouse. Something like 28-6. (The vote was 27-10).

"That was a difficult moment because certain people were trying to wipe me off the planet. I never looked back after that. The good thing is that, since 2000, government have learnt to keep a distance. Now I get worried some days that everything is too calm!"

That worry will have turned to something a good deal graver in Rio yesterday. Had he not taken ill, Hickey would have been on public view alongside his possessions yesterday, the assumption of innocence until proved otherwise quite blithely overlooked by those waving the warrants. Instead he journeyed to Samaritano Barra Hospital in an ambulance, his most basic dignities already taken.

And soon all manner of private correspondence came tumbling our way as the police worked through his emails with the most startling indiscretion.

We needn't doubt that sympathy won't exactly flow in torrents now for a man with so many sharp edges to his personality.

He has accumulated his share of enemies and will know that, if these charges stick, all that recent talk of the European Games as his personal Olympic "legacy" will seem puerile and self-deluding.

Pat Hickey has always gone about his business with a kind of feigned laconic indifference for obstacles put in his way. But, yesterday, that indifference gave way to the faintly terrified, waxen-faced stare of an elderly man plunged into sudden, abject turmoil.

He came to Rio believing that all those days of war were far behind him. But Pat Hickey is back in the deepest trench here, facing the fight of his life.

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