Lessons for board directors from Olympic fallout

Written by Jim Walsh

It is now almost two weeks since the Olympic Games in Rio ended.

The athletes have all returned home and the medal winners feted. And rightly so.

But in Ireland our medal winners had probably the least amount of publicity showered on them nationally than any previous Irish Olympic medal winners.

The attention they should have received has been deflected by a controversy over allegations of ticketing malpractices, which has resulted in Pat Hickey, the President of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) – who has stepped aside from this position temporarily – spending time in a Brazilian jail.

He has now been released but remains in Rio under house arrest.

When Pat Hickey, who is 71, was arrested, the action of the Rio police in allowing a journalist to film them arriving at his hotel at 6am and to record him answering the door naked and later in a dressing gown, was seen as unnecessary and unsavory. But it was irresistible to newspaper editors and social media activists and helped to dramatise the story.

Whatever the outcome, the entire episode has crucial lessons for anyone who joins a board of directors, whether it is a corporation, association, sports organisation or charity.

They are entering a minefield of governance, financial and legal responsibilities where they must be scrupulously careful in terms of making board decisions or, indeed in discussing or endorsing, the actions of their co-directors, as they will share culpability should there be any suggestion of wrongdoing.

In the case of the OCI, the Rio police questioned three other board members in addition to Pat Hickey, and a number of other board members, who did not attend the Olympic Games, have been requested to provide the Rio police with their passports. None of the board members questioned were detained or charged.

In terms of crisis management, it is difficult to know where to start with lessons learned or determining what was handled well or disastrously.

Only once since Pat Hickey’s arrest has a member of the OCI board spoken to the media about the situation. Even following an emergency meeting of the Council, an anodyne statement was issued saying that it was organising its own investigation and would make the report available to the enquiry being established by the Irish government.

A cynical observer might see this as a way of avoiding any OCI member being interviewed in person by the Government’s enquiry.

It is a truism in crisis management that being able to call on third parties to advocate on your behalf can be extremely helpful. This is not happening here.

The International Olympic Committee appears to have all but abandoned their Irish member and as sportswriter Paul Kimmage wrote recently, although more than 400 athletes have represented Ireland at the Olympics since 1989, when Hickey became president of the OCI, but five days after his arrest he (Kimmage) had not seen a single expression of support for him from any sports person, politician or journalist.

Internationally the Olympic movement has been tarnished by doping on a grand scale. The ticket scandal is small fry in that context. What Pat Hickey and others are being accused of is not a crime in Ireland.

It’s a story that is going to run for some time yet. And it will no doubt generate copious case studies on corporate governance and crisis management issues.

If you are a board director or asked to join one, whatever analysis or reports emerge from the whole episode will be worth studying very carefully.

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