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US Swimming Faces Demons In Its Midst

Apr 9, 2010  - Craig Lord

In the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct by certain swim coaches in the US down the years, USA Swimming has published an open letter to members from Chuck Wielgus and Jim Wood to set right a story of which it says: " ... has made many headlines, but it lacks a great deal of truth."

The news from the US, which will feature on ABC World News this evening, has much in common with stories from other parts of the world in the 1970s and 1980s, with Britain and Ireland among nations to have held inquiries and put in place modern mechanisms for dealing with bad apples and criminality. 

The news programme was set to report that some 36 coaches over the past 10 years have been banned by USA Swimming for sexual misconduct, showing that the federation takes its responsibilities seriously.

 civil lawsuit has been filed against USA Swimming and other organisations on behalf of a 15-year-old girl who was abused by her swim coach. The suit alleges that dozens of coaches and officials affiliated with the organisation sexually abused young athletes across the nation and that USA Swimming failed to do proper background screening.

The civil suit follows the criminal conviction of Andrew King, former head swim coach of San Jose Aquatics, who was charged with sex abuse in January this year and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. According to the amended lawsuit, since 1993, 32 coaches have allegedly abused their athletes across the US. In conjunction with the lawsuit, Deena Deerdurff Smith, a member of the Olympic gold-medal winning 4x100m medley relay in 1972, has since gone public with her own story of abuse. 

In a press conference the day after the amended lawsuit was filed, Deerdurff Smith alleged she was molested in the 1960s by a coach over a four-year period starting at age 11. She first spoke about the abuse with her parents when she was 17, according to reports on her case. Deerdurff Smith has not named the coach but says he has since been elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. For legal reasons, the media may not name the man in question, at least not for the time being.

The lawsuit alleges that USA Swimming has been negligent in its responsibility to provide proper background screenings of coaches.

The US is often, to many looking from the outside in, highly litigious in directions that are at odds with experience found elsewhere. Similar cases in Britain and elsewhere around the world have not resulted in law suits against the swim federations in question, though in Ireland, the federation was forced to face its demons in the full glare of publicity that became the subject of state investigation and report. In nations where no legal action against federations was pursued, events turned out as they did largely because cases against governing bodies may have be immensely difficult to prove (in terms of ultimate responsibility) and very costly, with scant promise of compensation for victims, while the criminal prosecution focus was aimed almost entirely at the perpetrators of the actual crime itself. The nature of the focus on federations was more intended to prevent such abuse taking place in future. 

Paul Hickson, Britain's head swimming coach at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was jailed for 17 years, later reduced by a couple of years, for raping two women and indecently assaulting 13 while coaching them at school and college. One woman, then 32, described how Hickson frequently raped her at his home during school lunch breaks, the first time when she was 13.

In Ireland, where paedophile swim coaches Derry O'Rourke and George Gibney were prosecuted for sex crimes, victims held talks with the sport's national governing body to settle legal actions arising from years of child abuse. The aim was to secure compensation and counselling (and costs of such) from national Government, given that ultimate responsibility for the mechanisms that govern the likes of swimming federations rest with the state. 

The issue comes down not only to how people manage swimming but how states manage the society within which such activities take place.

In Ireland and Britain, the cases were far closer to the federation because the perpetrators had been appointed as national head coaches. In Ireland, O'Rourke's victims were still fighting for compensation (and had not even received an apology) a decade after litigation started. The main allegations was that the swimming body - then known as the Irish Amateur Swimming Association - failed to protect young children and placed them into the care of a paedophile.

Confidential talks with victims were initiated after Swim Ireland appeared before an Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sports and Tourism in 2007. The renamed Swim Ireland claimed at one stage that the litigation could cripple the organisation financially. At the time 20% of Swim Ireland's budget was going on the costs of the O'Rourke case.

The situation was complicated by the refusal of the insurers, Royal & Sun Alliance, to indemnify the swimming body against the victims' claims. Swim Ireland, in turn, pursued legal action against its insurers.

In early 2008, a one-off package to compensate the victims of O'Rourke, estimated at  euros 5 million, were scuppered by the Irish Cabinet's refusal to sanction it after months of secret negotiations. The government feared that the deal would trigger an avalanche of similar claims and would expose the state to unprecedented liability in cases of child sexual abuse. The 13 women at the centre of this case were subjected to sexual assaults and rapes between 1970 and 1994. Towards the end of 2008, Swim Ireland settled a compensation claim, estimated at about 2.5m euros excluding costs, with 13 of O'Rourke's victims. A year later, in November 2009, former national and Olympic coach Gerard Doyle was convicted of 35 sex-related offences against children and Swim Ireland said that there was "no hiding place" for the perpetrators of such offences.

In investigations in Britain and Ireland, the following line of thought was pursued: federations often receive funds from the public purse and are governed by conventions agreed at national level for many organisations of similar ilk, bodies with children in their care or under their jurisdiction. In one report into sexual abuse cases in swimming, the following question has been raised: where does responsibility begin and end"? Behind that question was the following notion, raised in a report in Ireland: if those in charge of the sport are to be found culpable for what happened to swimmers 20 years ago, then must we not also ask 'where were the parents' and what responsibility do those who govern the sports' federations themselves bear.

The general point being made by the author of that report was not to shift blame but to suggest that the focus and funds ought be directed at prosecuting the criminals and making sure that abuse never happens in future by ensuring, through collective responsibility of all parties, that mechanisms are put in place to safeguard the well-being of children who enter any form of educational establishment, from the academic to the performing arts and sport. 

USA Swimming, in common with many federations around the world, has done much of late to take its responsibilities seriously. A federation statement reads: "As a youth organization, the safety and well-being of our members is paramount and USA Swimming takes allegations of coach misconduct very seriously. We have several layers of protection in place to protect our athletes from inappropriate behavior, and we are continuously evaluating these policies to ensure a safe, positive environment for our 300,000 members."

Meanwhile, the American victims of alleged abuse fight on. If that process unearths bad practice and reveals weaknesses in the system, so much the better for future generations and the sport of swimming as a whole, one in which the vast majority of coaches are law-abiding citizens who spend their lives taking good care of those who pass through their pools.