From top: Sonia O’Sullivan at the Atlanta Games 1996; Fr Liam Kelleher at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics
Readers may recall the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
It was the year Cork athlete Sonia O’Sullivan was forced to strip naked in front of other athletes in order to change her running gear – from Reebok to Asics – in the tunnel next to the track just before her 5,000m heat.
It happened amid a row between the Olympic Council of Ireland, who had a reported £75,000 deal with Reebok, and the then national athletics organisation Bord Lúthchleas na hÉireann (BLE), who had a contract with Asics.
It was reported at the time that Pat Hickey, of the OCI, personally told Sonia she could wear her gear from Reebok – with whom she had a sponsorship deal – even though BLE had registered the Asics strip as the official Irish team strip three days before the competition began.
Following the incident, Mr Hickey held a press conference on the issue – which was attended by Ms O’Sullivan.
Further to this, Cork priest and long-time athletics coach, Fr Liam Kelleher, who was national PRO for BLE at the time, writes:
Pat Hickey has done some fantastic work which cannot be denied but his obsession for power has finally been his undoing.
I have known him since 1972, from my first Olympic Games in Munich all of 44 years ago, and I was not happy with the antics that happened in Atlanta in 1996 during the “Sonia saga” which again was well documented at the time.
I was Press Officer for the then Irish athletic organisation BLE and was totally embarrassed by what transpired.
I saw Sonia dragged to the press conferences after the gear-changing, controversy which must have adversely affected her performance, and remember being acutely sorry for her having to try to give answers to the assembled media.
What really transpired we will probably never know.
I was hugely upset too, and when I returned to Ireland, I resigned my position as National Press Officer of BLE.
I went on national radio on the News at One, then with Seán O’Rourke to explain my reasons. My great friend Frank Greally [of Irish Runner magazine] covered the issue with five pages on Irish Runner with title “Pastor departs”. It was written by Sean McGoldrick whom I actually met at the stadium in Rio last week.
At that time, in 1996, I issued a broadside against the Olympic Council of Ireland which made banner headlines in the papers and for which I was castigated, in many parts, for being way off the mark.
But, I got huge support from people in the know.
One thing I said and wrote was: “The Olympic Council of Ireland are democratically elected by nobody, are answerable to nobody and dictate to everybody.”
So, you can see, the warning signs were there 20 years ago, if they were heeded.
My outburst came at a cost. Four years later, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, there was no way I could get a press pass – which had to be signed by the President of the OCI [Pat Hickey] – to cover the events for Marathon Athletics Magazine which I had been publishing since 1984.
In Sydney, I tried every day for six days in a row with the help of Frank Greally from Irish Runner and John O’Sullivan [Sonia’s father] but no joy.
Tickets were impossible to get so I was resigned to watching it on TV. Two hours before Sonia was due to run, I was with Frank Greally when Pat Hickey passed by.
Frank said,’Now is your last chance, bury your pride and go and ask him’, but I turned down Frank’s plea. We went again to the press accreditation centre put a bundle of magazines on the table and, to her eternal credit, the lady at the desk who at this stage must have been fed-up with me, decided to ring the communication chief and he gave the OK.
To my knowledge, it was the only accreditation given out without the signature of the President.
If I were asked now about the Olympic Council, I would have mixed views.The obvious one has to be transparency, and too much power must never again be the domain of any individual.
What do I think of Pat Hickey now?
I genuinely feel sorry for him as I stated at the outset he did a fantastic amount of work, he moved in high places with people like Russian President Putin numbered as one of his allies and goodness knows how many more, who can do little to help him now.
He is obviously suffering huge trauma and distress and if we want to put it in terms of punishment perhaps this is enough and let him go free. He has paid a huge price already.
Previously: Calling It