Game Changers: Gary O’Toole took a stand when others turned their heads

At expense of 1992 Olympics chances, swimmer sought justice for George Gibney’s victims

At the expense of competing to his potential in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Gary O’Toole became the catalyst for George Gibney’s victims to share and report their experiences. Photograph: Inpho

At the expense of competing to his potential in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Gary O’Toole became the catalyst for George Gibney’s victims to share and report their experiences. Photograph: Inpho

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He could never have conceived his swimming career to end the way it did. Two Olympic Games in Seoul and Barcelona, a silver medal at the 1989 European Championships in Bonn and compelled, in the end, to turn his sport inside out.

Now the shadow of his former Irish Olympic coach George Gibney, his mentor and perhaps in the early days, when he knew no better, a man whom he respected but to whom he never felt close, has not entirely faded.

The tangible things that remain for Gary O’Toole are newspaper articles, a book ‘Deep Deception’ and a thick report bound in a blue covering gathering dust on the book shelves of swimmers across Ireland. The Murphy Report is a 1998 Government publication into how such a catastrophe could have befallen the sport he loved. Even in its sanitised form it shows a calamity of light touch governance, grubby official jealousies and a moral cataclysm.

It is the official offering on what many people in swimming had already known. To those same people if it was some sort of answer to the series of scandals of child abuse, of death and of scars that will never heal, it was limp and disheartening.

Several of the victims of Gibney, who was not even named in the report, chose not to speak. Nor did many of Gibney’s enablers in Irish swimming in an investigation where nobody was compelled to come forward and speak. The view was that some of those that did gave uncontested views of what happened effectively and officially rinsed their names.

Gibney’s star swimmer, O’Toole, the one person who had more firsthand information than anyone about what horrors took place, also stayed away. There is a deep irony to that.

O’Toole bore the main responsibility for Government action and its commissioning of the report. Before it was conceived, it was the 22-year-old who blew the whistle on Gibney only to discover the body expected to protect children, the Irish Amateur Swimming Association (IASA) was tone deaf.

Undeterred and at the expense of competing to his potential in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, it was O’Toole who became the catalyst for Gibney’s victims to share and report their experiences, leading to charges against him and his arrest.

When Gibney was released after a Supreme Court judgment fell his way and still protected by Irish laws of defamation, it was O’Toole, not yet a qualified doctor, who was central to the mainstream publication of the true breadth of his coach’s crimes.

It was O’Toole’s actions that were responsible for the Government halting the flow of funds into the old organisation. It was O’Toole, whose crusade ultimately brought about the flight of Gibney to the USA and the ignominious dissolution of the IASA in 1998.

All that, the disgrace of Gibney, the opprobrium felt on his release and collapse of Irish swimming began after a conversation that took place on St Stephen’s Day on a flight to the World Swimming Championships in Australia in 1990.

Former international swimmer and coach Francis White, known to everyone as Chalkie, privately approached O’Toole, who sat alone in a row of seats on the flight to Perth. Chalkie simply asked him “Do you get along with George?”

O’Toole replied: “Just professional. I wouldn’t have his phone number. I wouldn’t know where he lives.” It was then Chalkie began to talk about the years of breathtaking sexual abuse he had suffered.

As he spoke O’Toole became aware that Chalkie’s terrifying history resonated in a profoundly personal way. It took him back to when he was an 11-year-old swimmer at a training camp in California in the summer of 1980.

Late one night Gibney had slipped quietly into O’Toole’s bedroom as he slept. As children do he pretended to be asleep. Gibney had a smell that the swimmers knew. In his car it was talcum powder. Other times it was body odour. O’Toole could smell him standing by his bedside. He kept still.

He then felt a hand on his leg and realised his coach was trying to get into the bed with him. Not all 11-year-olds would have had the strength of character. But O’Toole held strong and confronted his coach. In a pathetic pretence of normality Gibney produced an apple that he offered to O’Toole. The gift was rejected. Gibney left the room.

On the plane everything Chalkie was saying to him made perfect sense. The story stuck in his head and it didn’t help his swimming in Australia. O’Toole took 11th place in Perth. But the Olympic Games were the following year. With that in mind he took a break after the championships and arrived back to Ireland in February 1991.

Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney in 1988. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney in 1988. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

His first act was to quit Gibney’s star-studded swimming team at Trojan. It was lose, lose for O’Toole. Lose if he stayed, lose if he left. Gibney wanted to know why.

“I think you know why,” replied O’Toole.

Within days of that Gibney had resigned as national coach, a position he had held for 11 years. It transpired that Chalkie White had also confronted Gibney and told him he would go public about the abuse if he did not resign.

Gibney’s gift to swimming was that as he departed, he recommended to an IASA still in his thrall that Derry O’Rourke should replace him. O’Rourke was appointed. In January 1998 he pleaded guilty to 29 charges of abuse relating to 11 girls. The plea covered unlawful carnal knowledge of girls under 15, sexual assault and indecent assault. The offences, committed between 1976 and 1992 earned O’Rourke 12 years in prison.

O’Toole went to the Barcelona Olympics the following year in 1992. But his defection from Trojan and White’s threat had not curtailed Gibney’s sense of being the Irish demigod of coaching. Fattened on his own self importance he took up an analyst’s position with RTÉ for the Barcelona Games and began a series of stinging attacks on O’Toole.

When O’Toole slipped at the start of the 200 individual medley Gibney gleefully opined that it never should have happened to a senior swimmer. Prior to that he had been asserting O’Toole was allowing his love life to interfere with his swimming, an accusation strongly rejected.

Disappointingly, O’Toole’s 100m and 200m breaststroke and 200 medley swims did not get him beyond the heats. His time for the 1989 silver medal in the 200m breaststroke was 2:15.77. His Barcelona time was almost two seconds slower at 2:17.66. In hindsight, it was not difficult to explain the decline.

Call it responsibility. Call it a moral imperative. Call it anger. Call it outrage. Call it an affront. Call it a response to everything his father Aidan and mother Kay ever taught him. On his return from the Olympics O’Toole filled a gaping moral vacuum. He took it upon himself to ask his own discreet questions, make his own tactful investigations.

He was friendly with many of the girls and had trained with some of them over the years. He knocked on doors. He left messages. He met with them and spoke with them. They trusted in him. They believed he was doing the right thing, the first person in the sport to do so.

Assuring each victim that they were not alone, he pulled together a critical mass. It was O’Toole who encouraged six of the victims to go to the Gardaí and make formal complaints.

As they did that O’Toole knew the law would take its course. But there was more to do. Nearing the end of 1992, he wrote a letter to the Leinster Branch of the IASA requesting a meeting. While it seemed improbable they didn’t already know about Gibney, he wanted to ensure they could not at a later stage deny any knowledge.

By now O’Toole was seen by his own sport as a menace. He was a trouble maker kicking up dirt, dragging the reputation of Irish swimming through the mud. He was getting his revenge on a poor performance in Barcelona. He was blaming his old coach for his own failures. He was hurting his own sport.

“Gary O’Toole was a headache to them [IASA],” observed Aidan his father. “He wasn’t an asset. He was a headache.”

O’Toole met with the Leinster Branch in the Ashling Hotel in Dublin with Chalkie White and the husband of one of the victims. O’Toole spoke to them alone first. He said Gibney was a paedophile and had been sexually abusing male and female swimmers since the 1960s.

He said Gibney had tried to get into bed with him on a training stint in California. He said Gibney had to be stopped and urged them to remove him from a junior training camp scheduled for the following January.

The husband told them Gibney had sexually assaulted his wife when she was a child. White told them Gibney had abused him as a 14-year-old boy.

O’Toole also asked to meet the governing body, the IASA. A meeting was scheduled for later in December. But it was cancelled at short notice. He later received a letter from them saying that acting on advice from a legal adviser they “cannot act on mere innuendo and the person concerned has a basic right to his good name and reputation . . . ”

Weeks later Gibney took the swimming camp for children.

A now infamous judgment the Supreme Court allowed Gibney to be released by the High Court because of the delay and a lack of precision of the charges. Formal proceedings were discontinued in September 1994. The DPP did not appeal the decision.

Although the Irish courts let down the victims and the prosecution is seen as an abject failure, O’Toole had achieved what he set out to do. The legal system beat him and it beat the victims.

But the follow on was that the Government stopped funding the IASA. It crashed and burned and became a metaphor for malfeasance in the protection of children.

One of the victims later described her first meeting with the young medical student.

“I heard a knock on my door. I opened it and recognised Gary. I knew why he was here,” she said.

For a long time when nobody else would and to the detriment of his Olympic swimming career, Gary O’Toole was the only one standing at the door.

*"Were it not for that journalist, the malignant underbelly of Irish swimming might never have been exposed" -  read Gary O’Toole's letter to The Irish Times in response to this article here

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