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George Gibney’s story a cautionary tale we still need to heed

Former Irish Olympic swimming coach’s destructive life is a fitting subject for 10-part BBC podcast

Earlier this week a phrase from a column in the New York Times struck home. It described aspects of the Trump administration as a “hopeless tangle of pathologies”.

It banged around in my head for the last few days because it was an apt description of what Irish swimming once looked like.

The words jumped out because this week, as the BBC Sounds prepare to launch the first episode of a 10-part podcast series called 'Where is George Gibney', the debris of a hopeless tangle of pathologies from the old Irish Amateur Swimming Association (IASA) is still scattered around. That the current Swim Ireland is a modern, child first organisation does not alter that.

The Gibney scar tissue continues to smart as a constant reminder of what can happen, what damage can be done and of how sport can shatter into pieces without robust guard rails and constant vigilance.


At the heart of the story are coaches in powerful positions using that power to enable nefarious outcomes. Untouchable, innocently revered by kids and parents and sworn to bring greatness to many of the children they coach, everyone at some point was sucked into the schlock and the semi-celebrity veneer that in Gibney’s case cast him as a coach with an almost cult status.

In the 1980s and 1990s and into the noughties, three Irish Olympic coaches, almost in succession, were sexually abusing their swimmers. There was an honourable coach who broke what would have been a seamless succession of paedophiles.

They were tearing up the foundation stones, shredding the principal notions of what sport should be, healthy, educational and not just a safe place for children but a positive motivating factor in their lives.

Gibney, who now lives in Florida, Derry O'Rourke, who served prison time and had been living in the greater Dublin area and the late Ger Doyle, who also served prison time but was granted early release in 2015 and died in June aged 59, were never close but were fatefully connected by their crimes.

Layered over that was Frank McCann, Leinster’s wannabe president of the IASA and a man whose actions test even the most persuasive argument that evil does not exist.

Last year McCann qualified for daily release from Arbour Hill prison as he was coming to the end of a life sentence for burning to death his wife Ester and 18-month-old foster child Jessica after setting fire to their house.

In 1992 McCann knew a secret from his past as a swimming coach was about to come out as authorities did background checks following an application to adopt toddler Jessica. But he had fathered a child with a 17-year-old girl. Accelerant and delusional psychopathy was his solution. Esther and Jessica died so McCann’s reputation might live.

Enduring villain

But it is Gibney who is Irish sport’s most enduring villain. He is the one that got away, the baddest actor in the firmament of beaten docket, incurably corrupt coaches. Because of that, a massive sense of injustice has lingered. But some of the survivors have been strong enough not to let it slide.

Because he remains in the public eye and living in Florida, a kind of banishment from Ireland and a drifting existence in the US has been Gibney’s only punishment.

Freedom that the others didn't enjoy, came about when a Supreme Court decision paved the way for his release in 1994. Justice Declan Costello conducted the judicial review and held that Gibney's right to a fair trial would be infringed. He was the senior and lead judge in the case and the other judges agreed. Subsequently the High Court issued a prohibition order preventing the DPP from proceeding against Gibney. Why the DPP did not appeal that decision is consigned to history.

Revisiting the life and crimes of Gibney allows us to recall the mistakes that led to ‘deplorable him’, sets out personal stories of the survivors, the malign effect he had on their lives and the sequence of events that led him from his position of Olympic coach, celebrity darling and media performer to being regarded with opprobrium.

It’s also a pause to see how the law viewed crimes against children in Ireland over 25 years ago and, against that backdrop, how their guardians have since learned and legislated for greater vigilance.

Now an aging man, the breadth of Gibney’s crimes can only be understood in the retelling of the stories and addition of new information. While it may or may not have any direct material effect on his status as a free person domiciled in the US, the reminder that the foul rag and bone shop of the heart can create characters like him, continues to stir caution.

Commemoration is not the right word. But given the series of catastrophes he left in his wake, Gibney is disgracefully marked out as special, not ordinary. His name, even now, is loaded with emotive symbolic value just like that of Larry Nassar in USA gymnastics, who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years.

Inauspiciously these things tend to come back to the same starting point and that hopeless tangle of pathologies.