Olympic official Patrick Hickey. Image from Flickr, Copyright Fotagenic. Used under Creative Commons.

The underlying controversy of the 2016 Rio Olympics continues to rear its head and this time, it may have a direct effect on mixed martial arts’ Olympic inclusion.

On August 17, the President of the European Olympic Committees (EOC), Patrick Hickey was arrested by police in Brazil for an alleged connection to an illegal Olympic ticketing scandal.

Hickey, 71, also serves as an Executive Board Member on the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It has been reported that Hickey has been formally charged with “ticket touting, forming a cartel and illicit marketing.” If found guilty, these charges carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

The Olympic official’s involvement

The Irishman was arrested on Wednesday at the Olympic Family Windsor Marapendi Hotel in Rio.

The BBC reported that the Brazilian police paid a visit to Mr Hickey’s hotel room but were unable to initially find him.

Mrs Hickey, the only one present in their hotel room, seemingly tried to cover up for her husband, claiming he had already flown back to Ireland for the weekend. This was not the case, as Hickey was actually in the room next door, a suite registered to his son.

Following the arrest Hickey was transported to a local hospital after being taken ill; citing heart issues, but reportedly remains stable.

The President of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) Hickey is believed to be involved in a ticketing scandal which includes Kevin James Mallon.

Fellow Irishman Mallon was arrested on the day of the Olympic opening ceremony for allegedly being in possession of around 1,000 fraudulent tickets for the Rio games. The scheme is believed to have pocketed Mallon and his corporate company THG Sports around £2.4m according to the BBC.

The BBC has a full breakdown of the ticketing scandal, including a report on the alleged parties involved.

Hickey and EJU: A storied past against MMA

As of Aug. 17, Hickey has stood down from his positions within the OCI, IOC and EOC. Some believe this could be the prologue for a series of events, which will ultimately aid mixed martial arts’ goal to become a recognised sport under the IOC.

In the past, Hickey; who comes from a Judo background, has been vocal about his distaste towards mixed martial arts. It is perceived that Hickey has been one of the driving forces against the sport, with his degree of influence ranging from Olympic to national level.

Hickey’s call for the European Union to make the sport illegal – although with limited substance – held incredible weight coming from a man of his standing within the Olympic structure. His removal; albeit temporary, from such positions of power could help give amateur MMA the chance it deserves to flourish.

In April, Irish MMA witnessed a terrible tragedy with the passing of 28-year-old Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho after an unsanctioned MMA bout at Total Extreme Fighting (TEF) in Dublin.

The death of Carvalho sparked a massive investigation by Sport Ireland and attracted a heavy amount of negative press towards the sport.

Pictured: The late Joao Carvalho, image from Nobrega team Facebook.

Top Olympic official Hickey went as far as to describe MMA as ‘barbaric’ and claiming ‘it should be banned immediately’ in a statement given to insidethegames.

It is believed that Hickey’s distaste towards the sport is linked to his close relationship with the international Judo community.

Hickey sits as an Honorary Member of the European Judo Union (EJU), who in the past have been a strong proponent against the advancement of mixed martial arts.

In 2015, the EJU stripped the British Judo Association (BJA) from hosting the European Judo Championships, following a sponsorship agreement between the BJA and the UFC.

Despite the UFC pulling their support to try and save the UK event, the EJU published a scathing release cancelling the event.

The EJU wrote: “The European Judo Union has come to the realisation that the British Judo Association does not fit the EJU criteria to host the EJU flagship event.

“The BJA had entered into a sponsorship agreement which did not meet the EJU values. BJA persisted in this, notwithstanding that it had been warned on a number of occasions that this arrangement was unacceptable to the EJU, which has a right under the event contract to approve or disapprove any sponsorships of EJU events.”

Coincidentally, the Irishman isn’t the only high profile figure from the EJU to speak out against MMA. Honorary EJU Member and President of the French Judo Federation (FJF) Jean Luc Rouge gave a stern warning to French judokas potentially interested in MMA.

“Anyone (in judo) caught teaching MMA (Mixed martial arts), will be removed from the French Judo Federation. MMA is illegal in France. All those who teach do not have the right and are liable to be written off,” Rouge claimed to L’Equipe.

But, with Hickey’s removal from the IOC pending, could amateur MMA now progress beyond its restricted existence?

Changing perspectives

Despite Hickey and the EJU’s apparent dissension, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) have been working worldwide to help give the sport of MMA the recognition and regulation it deserves. IMMAF currently has 58 member federations from around the globe who are working to help regulate MMA in their home territories.

The member federation for Ireland is the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) which is headed up by influential Irish coach John Kavanagh.

However, before MMA and IMMAF can be recognised under the IOC, there are two major stepping stones. Recognition from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and SportAccord, this is a process that all sports must adhere to before they can potentially become a recognised Olympic sport.

In a statement on the IMMAF website, CEO Densign White explained: “To be in the running for recognition by the International Olympic Committee, MMA must first be accepted by sports body, SportAccord. But in order to apply to SportAccord, IMMAF must be a prior signatory to the WADA code.”

The World Anti-Doping (WADA) Code ‘is the fundamental and universal document upon which the World Anti-Doping Program in sport is based’. Simply, the WADA Code is embodied by an annually updated list of prohibited substances and methods which athletes cannot take or use.

With their WADA application submitted, IMMAF – who already implement in-competition drug testing – are now currently working on submitting an application to SportAccord. Recognition from the umbrella organisation (considered a step below IOC) would give IMMAF and amateur mixed martial arts the legitimacy it needs to progress towards Olympic consideration.

The importance of IMMAF

In recent weeks, due to the increased perception of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the MMA-Olympic discussion has developed in the mainstream. A lot of the arguments for having MMA in the Olympics although, have overlooked the importance of the sport’s backing from WADA and SportAccord, misinterpreting the UFC’s international exposure as a key component of the deal.

Although the UFC is an integral cog in the sport’s growing acceptance, the Olympic debate starts and ends with amateur body IMMAF. Martial arts – in its professional form – does not necessarily follow SportAccord’s ‘definition of a sport’, which states:

  • The sport proposed should include an element of competition.
  • The sport should not rely on any element of “luck” specifically integrated into the sport.
  • The sport should not be judged to pose an undue risk to the health and safety of its athletes or participants.
  • The sport proposed should in no way be harmful to any living creature.
  • The sport should not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.

Amateur MMA’s use of shin guards and rash guards, as well as an adapted rule-set which removes elbows and grounded strikes to the head, is a clinical decision by IMMAF to further the safety of its athletes and further adhere to SportAccord’s rules.

Similarly, a prime example of this is Olympic boxing. Despite undergoing significant changes, it remains at its core an amateur sport. There is no doubt that should MMA ever make its way to the grand stage, it would be as an amateur platform.

IMMAF have proven themselves virtuous in their mission to help the sport become officially recognised. Irrefutably, any dissent from Hickey and the EJU should not undo their rigorous work, which has unquestionably – in the eyes of many – earned MMA the right to stand alongside the sporting elite at the pinnacle of all competition.