Sarah Keane elected Olympic Council president (updated)

Sarah Keane was elected president of the Olympic Council of Ireland at last night’s extraordinary general meeting in Dublin’s Conrad Hotel.

Keane, Swim Ireland CEO and OCI executive member for the past two years, beat Willie O’Brien, acting president since Pat Hickey stepped aside last August, and Bernard O’Byrne, CEO of Basketball Ireland.

Although for the first time in over thirty years, Hickey was not physically present, the memories of his arrest on August 17 in Rio on charges relating to a ticketing fraud were still fresh in the minds of the delegates.

Fears that putting up two candidates in opposition to O’Brien, seen as too close to Hickey for comfort, proved unfounded when Keane received 29 of the 43 votes on offer. O’Brien received 12 votes and O’Byrne just two.

On a night when the old guard was resolutely shown the door, Keane’s election was the start of a landslide for Olympic Council newcomers. Former Aer Lingus chairman Colm Barrington representing sailing, one of Ireland’s most successful Olympic sports, was elected first vice-president, beating Martin Fleming from taekwondo, while for second vice president, Robert Norwood, an existing council member from snow sports, was elected with 28 votes; his only opponent Colm Buckley from wrestling got 14 votes. Norwood, like Keane, was a member of the three-person OCI sub-committee delegated to lead the OCI’s response to the Rio ticketing controversy.

The biggest shock of evening came when Sarah O’Shea, a former deputy CEO of the FAI with a legal background, who was representing snow sports, ousted longtime incumbent Dermot Henihan from the position of honorary general secretary receiving 20 votes to Henihan’s 15. Henihan had been “detained” in Rio following the ticketing controversy and his robust defense of Pat Hickey’s legacy received a muted response.

“I hope I have done some good,”  Henihan said when conceding defeat to O’Shea who, like many of those standing for election, represents a new world of professional sporting administrators. After leaving the FAI early in 2016, O’Shea set  SOS Sport Consult, which among other things,  drew up the strategic plan for the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.  Like Sarah Keane, she is a board member of the Federation of Irish Sport and the pair embraced after her election.

Outgoing treasurer  Billy Kennedy, a member of the OCI executive since 1992 and a Hickey apologist, survived probably because he was the sole nominee for the position. He still had to be approved and was duly elected with 29 votes.

A further seven were elected to the executive committee. These were Denis Toomey (paralympics), Lochlann Walsh (triathlon), Robert Johnson (hockey), Georgina Drumm (athletics), Ciaran Gallagher (gymnastics), PJ Nolan (cycling) and 2012 Olympian and outgoing athletes representative Darren O’Neill, who is still competing as a boxer.

The 34 sports represented were archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, bobsleigh, boxing, canoeing, curling, cycling, equestrian, fencing, football, golf, gymnastics, handball, hockey, ice hockey, ice skating, judo, modern pentathlon, paralympics, rowing,  rugby, sailing, shooting, snowsports, swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, triathlon, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling.

Earlier in the evening, reports were heard from Stephen Martin, deputy chef de mission in Rio, who found himself in the hot seat when Kevin Kilty, the chef de mission, resigned in the wake of the Rio ticketing scandal. Martin described Rio as Ireland’s most successful Olympics ever, with silver medals for  rowers Gary and Paul O’Donovan and Annalise Murphy in sailing.

“In Beijing we had nine in the top ten and five in the top 20. In London, it was 14 in the top ten and six in the top 20. In Rio, we had 16 in the top ten and 14 in the top 20.” He singled out  Scott Evans,  who made  the quarter-finals in badminton, Jonty Evans for his 9th in eventing (the team finished 8th), and the  team from his own sport of hockey, which was the first Irish team to qualify for an Olympics since 1948, but did not make it out of the pool stages of the competition

For some reason, Thomas Barr’s thrilling fourth place in the 400m hurdles, Rob Heffernan’s 6th in the 50m walk, Sinead Jennings and  Claire Lamb’s sixth in rowing, Natalya Coyle 7th and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe 8th  in modern pentathlon escaped his attention.

He admitted that there here were disappointments, especially when it came to the boxing squad, as well as doping and betting issues. Not helping at all were the eccentric judging decisions in the boxing.

Then there were flooded apartments and living conditions so dire that teams had to hire their own clean-up squads. Unlike the Aussies, the Irish didn’t complain and got the personal thanks of IOC president Thomas Bach for their stoicism.

Next up was  Dermot Henihan, who drastically misread the mood of  the room by heaping praise on outgoing president, Pat Hickey, who, in Henihan’s account, dragged the Olympic movement kicking and screaming into the 20th century during his 27 years at the top.

“Pat just never stops. He is always on Olympic duty. Pat is a loyal and a good friend to the OCI and will be sadly missed. His contribution has been immense and should be recognised.”

Henihan also pointed out that the Olympic movement these days encompasses more than the four year cycle of summer and winter games. There are youth Olympics at world and European level and sundry other multi-sport events, most recently the European Games. This, a personal  project of Pat Hickey, took place in the oil rich oligarchy of Kazakstan in 2015. It was not the occasion to query this plethora of international events, which few countries can afford to host and which some might think only clutter up an already over-stuffed sporting calendar.

A more sobering view of  Hickey’s administration came when treasurer  Billy Kennedy informed the meeting that the Rio ticket controversy had cost the OCI €900,688, although they did manage to pare about €100,000 off this initial sum. Of this, €394,600 went to Arthur Cox and Co for legal advice,  and €214,900 to Grant Thornton as well as €18,500 to Deloitte for post-Rio reviews of the OCIs governance and structures. There was also €69,500 paid to the Communications Clinic for PR services. Some of this money will be recovered from insurance. The figures did not include legal bills for OCI officers and staff amounting to around €180,000.

After the funds were taken from the OCI’s reserve funds of €2,346,121, it left eaving a healthy €1,535,931 to be carried forward to the Tokyo Olympics. This was due principally to the “diligent and untiring efforts of one man, Patrick Hickey”, Kennedy claimed.”Irish Olympic sports, Irish athletes and Irish sport owe a great debt to him,” he added.

While Keane had little to say after her election, a press release was sent out almost immediately by Swim Ireland, written in pitch perfect business speak.

“I feel humbled and privileged to have been elected as President of the OCI this evening….I am committed to working with the new Executive Committee and staff of the OCI to put in place administration and governance structures that are fit for purpose and best in class, to ensure an athlete centred approach in respect of all that we do and ultimately, that the OCI plays its part in enhancing the future development of sport in Ireland and represents the country well on the world stage….” And so on.

Hold tight; it’s a brave new world.

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