The Swiss bust and extradition to the U.S. of 14 officials of FIFA, the international soccer organization, on corruption charges offers the faintest ripple of hope in investigations of USA Swimming and its global parent, FINA — the largest historical nest of sex abusers outside the Catholic Church.
Granted, the death toll in swimming is nothing like the thousands of workers who perished in Qatar building a secular temple for the 2022 World Cup there, in a decision driven by a network of bribes. Still, the FIFA story is a reminder that swimming corruption, which is mostly about the cover-up on behalf of abusive authority figures who permanently damaged the lives of countless young athletes — commonly girls in their early and mid teens — displays the blood of literal death in its narrative, too.
And I’m not just talking about victims of molestation, such as Sarah Burt, the 16-year-old Illinois girl who stepped in front of a moving truck in 2010 to end the misery visited upon her by a local coach who was never brought to justice either by police or USA Swimming. I’m also talking about Fran Crippen, the open water swimmer from Pennsylvania who died the same year in the waters off the coast of Qatar’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates.
That year, the final leg of FINA’s 10K race series was awarded to Dubai despite evidence that the Gulf waters in October were way too warm for a safe long-distance swim competition. Evidence, shmevidence — the Dubai bid was championed by FINA board member Dale Neuburger (also a USA Swimming board member and former president), whose Indianapolis consulting firm, not coincidentally, was paid handsomely by UAE oil sheiks for the service of navigating their site proposal through the shoals of aquatic politics.
Fran Crippen, 26, perished during his race, most likely from heat stroke. As if in defiance of the ensuing criticism, FINA this March staged another open-water event in Dubai.
The Crippen death isn’t the only sign that swimming malfeasance crosses oceans. Neuburger also sponsored the career of Brazilian native Alex Pussieldi, who coached in Florida for nearly a decade after beating up on the pool deck a Mexican swimmer who blew the whistle on Pussieldi’s funky housing arrangements with foreign swimmers he trafficked and peeped on through a hidden bathroom video camera. If you’re in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, watch for Pussieldi on the SporTV network there — he’s the Rowdy Gaines of his country’s broadcast swimming coverage.
Right now an Irish legislator is renewing the fight to extradite from the U.S. and prosecute former Irish national swim team coach George Gibney, who is hiding out in Florida like a retired Dachau gate guard. This reporter has appealed a recent decision of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services not to release Gibney’s visa and green card records to find out who planted him here. In 2000, an Irish commission headed by a High Court justice found that Gibney had molested dozens of girls and boys in his charge. One victim, a 17-year-old when Gibney raped her in a Tampa hotel on a 1991 training trip, can’t testify against him because of her lifelong post-traumatic psychiatric condition. Another died mysteriously in Ireland last December — setting off the latest round of efforts to cancel Gibney’s American hospitality.
Government investigations of swimming don’t have to start from scratch, but they’re flat-footed. Last year, before retiring, Congressman George Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, released a letter asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “fully investigate USA Swimming’s handling of both past and present cases of child sexual abuse.” In 2012, the California Supreme Court ordered the group to release thousands of pages of discovery documents it was trying to conceal from victims’ civil lawsuits; those files were promptly subpoenaed, under seal, by the FBI’s South Bay office.
When the sport’s cover-up of abusive Maryland coach Rick Curl unraveled in 2013 (Curl is now in state prison for statutory rape), Miller requested a Government Accountability Office report, which remains unfinished and unpublished.
Upon leaving Capitol Hill, Miller announced that Congresswoman Jackie Speier was taking over as the unofficial youth sports abuse watchdog. So far there is no indication that Speier has lifted a finger for the cause. To witnesses who asked for publication of information they had given to staff investigators for Miller, Speier’s office said, “No.”
Let’s hope the soccer scandal breakthrough gives momentum to the swimming story — something the American public seems to have no stomach to hear, but must.
Irvin Muchnick’s latest book is Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It. He writes about swimming abuse at his site ConcussionInc.net.Filed under: National Politics