Irish swimming in dock over paedophile coaches


ANALYSIS:Swimming is still paying the price for at least three decades of not tackling the problem of child sex abuse by coaches, writes JOHNNY WATTERSON

SWIM IRELAND will argue that the 6½-year jail sentence handed down yesterday to former Olympic coach Ger Doyle was the final act of the sport in cleaning out its locker: that his jailing for sexually abusing children was not another doleful chapter in the history of the sport but one that took place before resources had been put in place to improve child protection.

The sport will say the same things it said when Olympic coach Derry O’Rouke was convicted in 1998, make the same pledges, condemn such practices in the same outraged way, offer support and suggest Doyle’s incarceration might help to bring about that mystifying word “closure”. But once again it is Irish swimming in the dock.

One of the unique misfortunes to have befallen the sport is that it harboured three paedophiles, Doyle, O’Rourke and George Gibney, and a murderer, Frank McCann, all at the same time.

The subtext to saying that Doyle’s misdemeanours arrived before structures were put in place suggests that had there been resources earlier then swimming may have been in a better position to prevent these crimes taking place or perhaps help the children. Such a position is simply untrue, insulting to the victims and a subtle reworking of the recent history.

A touch of revisionism might be the easy way out for the sport. But the truth is that swimming is still paying for the failures of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and possibly the 2000s, paying for the antipathy directed at the few voices that were raised in the sport and paying for the self-serving obstructionism and campaigns to silence those voices.

While Olympic swimmer Gary O’Toole was struggling to keep mind and body together in 1992 in the knowledge that his former coach, Gibney, had abused swimming colleagues, Gibney was on national television in Ireland saying how O’Toole was unfit to be at the Barcelona Games. When coach Carole Walsh was receiving threatening telephone calls in the middle of the night because of her dissent over the sport protecting Gibney, she was castigated. When Bart Nolan snr was made persona non grata for standing outside swimming egms and agms with placards proclaiming cover-ups, he was deemed a trouble-maker and an anti-swimming eccentric.

When in September 1993, the headmaster of a school where O’Rourke was coaching a club, suspended him and ordered him to send back his key, pending an investigation, O’Rourke was then appointed development officer with responsibility for 12- and 13-year-old swimmers in another Dublin pool.

At one 1995 Leinster egm in the Ashling Hotel in Dublin, which I attended, a delegate raised his hand and asked if the “sex people at the back” could be removed. The aunt of a 12-year-old girl had just outlined to the floor how her niece had been raped by Gibney, who remained an honorary member of the association.

In 1998 minister for sport Jim McDaid commissioned a report into swimming by Roderick Murphy that produced a list of recommendations, not directives. It wasn’t ideal but was a chance for swimming to take a hard look at itself, recognise the immense damage done, clear out old wood and start anew. Swimming bridled. It cherry-picked from the report, kept many of the same officials in situ and carried on. As a document for change, the association saw it as an a la carte menu of good practices. O’Toole’s father Aidan described it at the time as “a laugh”.

Swimming now asks us to judge it not by the grubby past but the new present.

In 2002, no ears pricked in the higher echelons of Swim Ireland when it was reported that Ger Doyle had booked the same Novotel room for himself and a male swimmer. The teenager had just turned 18 and was competing in the British Youth Championships in Sheffield. This was the era of Michelle Smith, who because of the explicit regulations laid down by the organisation, was unable to share a room with her then fiancé and future husband, Eric de Bruin. Doyle, who underwent a child welfare course under the auspices of the Irish Sports Council in 2004, was permitted to go ahead with the arrangement.

It beggars belief that in the context of what went before in swimming, Doyle’s arrangement could have been seen as anything other than inappropriate. Even in sports federations that have had no such sordid histories, no ministerial investigations, no Olympic coaches fleeing the country or going to prison, is it not seen as good practice for a coach to share a room with a teenage athlete.

People may also legitimately ask after the bitterness, grief and lessons learned, how Irish swimming got it catastrophically wrong again in appointing Doyle in 1996, some 15 years after he had started abusing children.

Johnny Watterson is an Irish Timessports journalist

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