Current Basketball Ireland chief executive Bernard O’Byrne is seeking the top job in the Olympic Council of Ireland [OCI]. Emmet Ryan spoke to O’Byrne about why he’s seeking the presidency and why the basketball boss believes he can win
When Bernard O’Byrne stepped into the hot seat at Basketball Ireland, the situation was grim. O’Byrne, formerly the head of the FAI, was taking charge of an organisation €1.7 million in debt, with its national teams at all levels abandoned, and not a whole lot to hope for. As it stands, there is now only €200,000 left which the organisation expects to be clear by the end of the year and Ireland has national teams back at all levels. It’s that record of success along with his ability to work with people at all levels of the sport here that O’Byrne hopes will elevate him to one of the most powerful positions in Irish sport.
“With experience, you try not to repeat the wrong things. The first thing you do is take the low hanging fruit and get a couple of small successes so people see little bits of progress. That’s what has happened with Basketball Ireland,” said O’Byrne.
“You need people to perceive that you don’t have favourites and that you aren’t neglecting any areas. It’s taken six years but there’s a great feeling in basketball now. You have to have a plan and the best plans are those you can tweak as you go along.”
O’Byrne is up against acting OCI president Willie O’Brien and the head of Swim Ireland, Sarah Keane, for the role. Both Keane and O’Brien are seen widely as heavyweight contenders for the role, with strong support bases. The basketball Ireland chief is well aware of the task ahead of him before the vote on 9 February.
“It’s a challenge, I don’t see myself as a favourite. I am an outsider but I will get around and talk to everybody. When you enter a race in the Olympic spirit, you enter in it to win. I’m not entering to get one or two votes,” he said.
The position became vacant after former president, Pat Hickey, stood down following the ticketing scandal that marred Ireland’s participation in the Rio 2016 Olympics. O’Byrne said he would be open to talking to the former president but only if he wins the election.
“I’m not going to chat to him beforehand. If I was successful it would make sense to talk to him and several other people. You can’t take over an organisation and not get as much information as you can,” he said.
“I need to convince the electorate of who I am and what I’ve done, that what I’m saying is what I am going to do. I want them to look at my record with the FAI and Basketball Ireland. I have the experience and knowledge, I’ve delivered in the past. If people vote for me, they are buying something they know not a pig in a poke,”
“It will be a challenge to win them over. I don’t know what role Pat will take, obviously I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s supporting Willie O’Brien but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Should he be victorious, O’Byrne said he is well aware of the task ahead of him in restoring the OCI’s reputation and building collaboration between the sporting bodies involved.
“On day one there would be people I would need to sit down and talk to. It’s not about the OCI surrendering to those bodies, it’s about collaboration and cooperation. That’s where I start, if I need to have a row with somebody I’ll have a row and then we’ll move on. I would view myself as a stay at home president. I have no European or world ambitions in the Olympic movement, as Pat Hickey had. The next four years should be all about the OCI in Ireland,” he said.
“I have experience at European level, through my role on the finance committee in FIBA Europe, it’s an influential position and also an educational one as I see how a European body of 52 federations is financially managed.”
Term limits are a priority for O’Byrne should he win the vote. Hickey’s reign lasted nearly three decades, something the Basketball Ireland chief sees as unhealthy for any governing body. “Everybody would accept that a 27 year reign wouldn’t be good for the individual or the organisation. In Basketball Ireland we have a maximum of four years, that may be too short, while other bodies employ two four-year terms as the absolute maximum. The solution is there but there has to be a clear termination point otherwise organisations stagnate. The report [post Rio] from Deloitte show inconsistencies with company law practice and you can’t have that in an organisation. There needs to be proper governance. The rules over who can stand to be president or an officer are archaic. That’s the start of it. Plenty of organisations have gone through this exercise over the past number of years, including Basketball Ireland. It’s expensive and painstaking but we have come out the other side and that was a good experience for me,” he said.
“People will resist, I am and outsider and a reform candidate. If people just want to tweak things or move the deckchairs on the Titanic, it’s not me they need to vote for. The image of the Olympic council is on the floor in Ireland. The brand image of the Olympics worldwide has taken a battering over the last 20 years. In Ireland, particularly after what happened in 2016, if you mention the Olympic council you immediately get into the negatives about ticketing. The performances by the O’Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphy are second thoughts, those great performances should be the image of the Olympics in people’s minds,”
“If you look at what they do in Britain, they make heroes out of their Olympians. The OCI hasn’t fully embraced Olympic heroes going back. The recent ones are fine because they are in everyone’s minds, I’m thinking about the past heroes who haven’t been embraced and promoted a way to use them to inspire young people. It needs to be seen at the centre of Irish sport, coming up with initiatives and ideas and working well with Sport Ireland and the government. Relationships over the years haven’t been good there. Normally that comes about because of personalities,”
“I can’t see any need for clashes and fall-outs. There has to be mutual respect so everyone can get on with the job. Quite honestly, the OCI needs to become relevant to Irish sport. There are plenty of people who would say that all the Olympic council does is give a set of tracksuits to teams and off they go. I know they do other things but they don’t let people know what they are doing. There are 37 organisations and they all have to be looked after. For the smaller organisations, a small gesture can be a big thing but they can’t just be ignored. I don’t want to say everybody should be equal because, patently, that’s ridiculous but everybody should be respected and everybody should feel part of it,”
As a former chief of the FAI, O’Byrne’s relationship with current soccer boss John Delaney is one that will come under the microscope ahead of the vote. The basketball chief doesn’t see it as a major obstacle.
“It’s not acrimonious and it’s not friendly. I met John within the last year. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and that’s fine. We obviously move in different circles but I would have no hesitation in asking the FAI for support. I have many more friends than enemies in the FAI, in fact I couldn’t even name any enemies. I will certainly be asking them for support. When I went into the FAI, it was in complete disarray. There was no money there, there was a contingency plan to raid the coffers of the FAI Junior Council. The international teams went on trips on credit in the hope that money would come in later on,” he said.
“Things have dramatically changed since then. It was a basket case. There were other issues in the structures with people on 14 different committees and younger people unable to get access. I’m proud that a lot of the changes I made in the FAI were built on subsequent to me leaving, even though everybody probably just remembers [failed stadium development] Eircom Park,”
A version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post.