Discomfort in hearing George Gibney story should be felt by us all
Johnny Watterson: John Mullins and Peter Banks feel swimming coach’s presence again
George Gibney (centre, sitting down) pictured with the Irish Olympic Swimming Team returning from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in South Korea. (From left to right) Stephen Cullen, Michelle Smith, Gary O’Toole, Richard Gheel and Aileen Convery. Photo: Getty Images
After 26 years the public interest in George Gibney has not subsided. That is nothing short of wondrous. It is as though Ireland’s former Olympic swimming coach has become the embodiment of a societal sin committed three decades before and never expunged. A violation that cannot go away.
It sits there. An irremovable stain. Pops up now and then, sometimes for an extended run, sometimes ephemerally before falling back into an extended hibernation, perhaps for years.
While Gibney never had to face being judged by his peers in a court of law, public sentiment has ensured that, although he hightailed it to the USA and the promise of a better life where no pesky questions about abusing young swimmers might arise, he has suffered.
His notoriety is widely known. That is a sufferance. That his crimes were committed around pool decks and in cars and in training camp hotels means the hurt always comes back to his sport of swimming. For the good people in it now with the modern, child-centred policies and the tighter governance put in place by Sarah Keane and her Swim Ireland team, that hurt is just something they have to own. It’s a cost of their past.
Director John Mullins rightly resigned from the Swim Ireland board last week, if only because he made a misplaced call in providing Gibney’s bail in Dún Laoghaire District Court in 1993 before siding with him and against the very children who were under his care.
He didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t do anything wrong. But his judgement was questionable and history, told in his own words in the BBC Sounds and Second Captains ‘Where is George Gibney’ podcast, had him sympathising with a then alleged notorious paedophile and against a slew of children who were horribly victimised.
How the Leinster Branch, the most egregious offenders in Gibney’s chilling heyday, overlooked such a hot potato political issue and put his name forward for board membership last April is now for them to work out with the governing body. There is some patching up to do.
But this week was not just about Mullins. It was also about former Irish coach Peter Banks, an American Swim Coaches hall of famer in the USA. Banks did nothing wrong either except that he equivocated when he was asked a direct question. Banks was appointed as Swim Ireland High Performance Director in May 2009 having moved from Ireland, and from under the shadow of Gibney, to Florida in 1989 to further his career. He is one of the most experienced and well respected swimming coaches and leaders, not only in the United States but throughout the world.
He has coached age-group, National, International and Olympic swimmers including American swimmers Brooke Bennett - winner of three individual Olympic Gold Medals in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 - and Maritza Correia - silver medalist with the USA Women’s 4x100m Freestyle Team Relay in Athens 2004.
To get a US visa, which Gibney did, he needed an American job offer. Banks was asked on the BBC podcast if he wrote the letter offering Gibney a job.
“I don’t think so,” said Banks. “Quite honestly I don’t think so. I don’t ever remember doing that. I mean I don’t ever remember that.”
‘Do you think you could have?’ he was asked.
“I could have,” said Banks. “But I don’t ever remember being asked to do it. I mean I don’t ever remember that. Em, but again, in passing, at a time when he was putting his application together maybe he asked me for...yeah again I can’t...it doesn’t ring a bell for me. It doesn’t say oh yes I remember doing that, yeah he asked me to do that. I don’t ever…”
‘But he might have asked?’
“He might have. Yeah of course, he could have.”
And you walk away from that exchange with Second Captains’ Mark Horgan and wonder did Banks or didn’t Banks help, or offer a letter of comfort, or write a letter offering Gibney a job? Or, it was a long time ago and it is just as he says - that he doesn’t remember? Or is it that, in not remembering, he couldn’t say for certain that he did write a letter and couldn’t say for certain that he didn’t write a letter?
Car crash exchange
Like Mullins, Banks gave his time freely and without coercion. He was under no obligation to do the interview. But again, for Banks it was a car crash exchange.
And for another swimming coach the gift of Gibney has been to rise up from the past and insert himself back into their life, uncomfortably so.
That’s not a bad thing. Everyone is responsible for a legal system that allowed Gibney walk away from 27 counts of indecency and carnal knowledge of children. A legal system that also changed in time to jail child abuser Derry O’Rourke, Gibney’s appointed successor, who failed using the same defence.
Everyone should feel uncomfortable when his name comes up. The victims do. Their discomfort is felt each time that same power pose photograph of him at the side of a swimming pool with the glasses, the beard, the timing device wrapped like a doctor’s stethoscope around his neck, appears in the media.
Most acutely it is felt when an audio of his voice monstrously transports them back into his company on the pool deck.
It is no harm that after 26 years their discomfort should be our discomfort too.