I Ran Past The First Watchman … Does your silence indicate permission to pass?

The Watchmen (and now women of #MeToo) of Sport - by Craig Lord at the Foro Italico, Rome


I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: “I ran through here while you were looking the other way.” The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. “I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,” I said. The watchman still said nothing. “Does your silence indicate permission to pass?” – Franz Kafka

Canadian swim coach Rick Madge used his own swim blog today to run “a swim coach’s messages to swimmers and parents about all aspects of swimming” and “Steps we can take to prevent youth abuse in Sports”.

In the week the Safe Sport Act made it to law in the United States (and our Safe Sport series), Madge’s message is a timely one and coincides with those of other coaches, such as Chris De Santis, who looks at “Grooming, Bravery and Boundaries” in his blog today.

Most coach discussions, understandably, focus on latest training techniques and tips and the various tools in the box that a coach in 2018 requires to get the best out of the young folk zipping up and down his or her pool.

There is a deal of discussion about approach and psychology in places like the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange on Facebook – but for the most part very few engage in discussion over the issues raised by the Larry Nassar scandal at USA Gymnastics and the recent and long-term woe to be found in various other Olympic sports, swimming among them.

Grown men saying the fear lives in them yet, many years on. grown men breaking down as they recalled the predator who abused them – and the help that was just not on offer to them from clubs, associations, watchdogs. And there are some 86 cases yet to be heard. Back then, no processes, no-one to turn to. Such things take courage and demand our respect and support – and resolve to do all we can to make sure there is no gateway into sport for predators.

The recent allegations made by Ariana Kukors against her former coach, Sean Hutchison – and his subsequent denial as the 2009 World 200IM champion took to her own blog to tell “My Story”, prompted us to use this week and next to place special emphasis on the subject of Safe Sport and how that connects to the wider picture of governance, who takes responsibility for what and when and in what circumstances; and where swimmers, coaches and others can turn to when in need of reporting abuse (many forms, not just sexual but nothing tops any form abuse that inflicts direct and lasting damage on anyone), abuse they have heard of.

What resource is available to whistleblowers? What process and procedures are in place and can have those who need to use such services trust that the system will independent and supportive?

These are the kinds of questions SwimVortex will be posing next week, online and to the relevant parties we seek answers from.

Meantime, coach Rick Madge’s message at Mighty Tritons Aquatic Club is well worth reading, placing as he does the issues of Safe Sport in contemporaneous and situational context.

In the comments section, a reader posts this question:

“…how do we have so many ‘predators’ in these positions. Does this totalitarian position of authority attract ‘predators’ or does the position of having total power bring out the ‘predatory ‘ nature in that person.”

Good question – and there’s no easy answer. It is well known that the criminal mind intent on doing harm in a child’s world will head to the easiest access point. Swimming is one of many.

GDR, state plan 14:25: in safer hands than USA gymnasts

His conclusion notes a point we have made on several occasions before, namely that in my article on ‘truth’ today, where I write “… the words of a former GDR swimmer – an Olympic champion in her day – I once spoke to who said she felt she had been in safer hands with doctors who gave her performance-enhancing drugs because of the care and control and monitoring she was under every day, than she would have been in the hands of certain coaches and programs far and wide in the world. The USA Gymnastics crisis tells us why – that and the words of that GDR swimmer apt to sink the soul.”

Madge writes: “There is an unfortunate similarity between this issue of sexual assault of youths by state-complicit sports organizations, and another very dark time in sport.

“During the 1970s and 1980s, East German sports officials forced many thousands of their elite athletes to take experimental drugs, resulting in massive numbers of Olympic medals, but also horrible health problems for these athletes for the rest of their lives. It was only after we learned of the details of this program did we understand how little the health of those athlete’s meant when compared to international sporting success.

“Those decades are considered by many to represent the lowest point in modern sports. Unfortunately, the gradual unveiling and recognition of the sexual and psychological abuse of thousands of young athletes around the world indicates that we could be in a period of time just as dark.”

Indeed but the darkness does not stem from the odd rogue in the system. The gatekeepers must also be scrutinised, for sexual abuse holds one thing in common with all others forms of abuse: it happens on someone’s watch – and it isn’t good enough to say ‘we just had no way of knowing’.

Look for double standards – intentional or not makes not a jot of difference – and you will see the gateway through which the rogue sees his chance.

No-one is suggesting that those running USA Swimming wanted abuse to happen on their watch. I feel absolutely sure that is not the case. But the handling of reported abuse in the past, including the recent past – as acknowledged by the late Chuck Wielgus when CEO – failed to protect athletes and others reporting abuse, failed to protect the many – the vast majority, of course – good and fine coaches from having the reputation of their profession dragged through the mud by association with the criminal mind and criminality.

Much of the latter is unwarranted. It would be good to say all of it but for one aspect: silence. Where are the voices of coaches when bad things happen. I’m talking big names – and I’m not inviting comment on the Hutchison case: it is the subject of legal process and that must be given its fair run for all concerned with the case an all who have nothing to do with it but may indeed be a victim of a true allegation or the victim of a false accusation one day.

Shirley Babashoff – as posted by the swimmer of herself on Twitter

I’m talking about these kind of things: “Last Gold” – lovely to see USA Swimming bosses coseying up to Shirley Babashoff, Wendy Bogliolo and Jill Sterkel (The memory of Kim Peyton in the room, heart and soul) and celebrating a film that documented the events of 1976 and the USA victory over the GDR in the women;’s 4x100m free just as it looked like all was lost to Oral Turinabol.

Dreadful, woeful and somewhat sickening the silence then when not a single word from those same officials when they left teenager Lilly King to say it all for them at Rio 2016 at the height of Star Wars, Efimova* and Mack Horton vs Sun Yang* in the mix.

I sent two notes to Wielgus on the way to Rio and during, one asking for a comment on the boycott of open water swimmers from the USA in support of their former teammate, the late Fran Crippen, and in opposition to the fact that FINA had promoted the man in charge of the race in which Fran had died in woeful circumstance and in light of the face that FINA had returned its World Cup event to the same waters indecently soon after the events of 2010.

Wielgus said that there would be no comment because not was not official policy but that the federation was happy for the swimmers to decide for themselves because that was the stronger message.

Hogwash! The strongest message to where it needs to get to was from USA Swimming, the most powerful player in the pool of global governance by virtue of a success rate that cannot be ignored and carries enormous weight and influence. The message to the world is not the one that will shift FINA. The message to FINA is the one that came from Bob Bowman in 2009 when the international federation couldn’t white make top its mind when to impose the ban on shiny suits that Congress had voted for in overwhelming numbers: get it done – and we won’t be there until you have. A few hours later, it was all over and even those who had benefitted from the suits let out a collective sigh of relief as swimming was returned to the swimmer.

The second message to Wielgus was to ask for comment about the booing and jeering in Rio of those in the athlete and coach stands fed up to the back teeth of seeing cheats back on their blocks. And what words of support would he give to Lilly?

No comment. Best coming from the swimmers. Stronger message.

I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead but I will say this once more: hogwash. Not the way to go. It is long, long past the time when USA Swimming needs to stop looking up the great career ladder to Scott Blackmun and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and start thinking and standing on its own two feet, funding, budgets and career pathways nothing compared to the safety and welfare of athletes and their right to clean sport.

The time for fear is over. Here’s gymnast Aly Raisman explaining why she’s no longer afraid to speak out against USOC.

In swimming, we look back at Rio and find:

  • Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman taking their chance on the best of occasions to speak up for clean sport
  • Lilly King and Mack Horton doing the same and doing so before they faced the moment of truth in the water.
  • FINA director Cornel Marculescu rushing up to hug Sun Yang* on the burning deck of the first Olympics at which the athletes joined hands and voices and booed to and from their blocks the likes of Efimova and the Chinese controversy (doping one thing but he also crashed a Porsche into a bus when driving without a licence, the safety of items of no concern, apparently; he was the subject of a complaint at 2015 world titles when he got aggressive with a Brazilian woman in the warm-up; and then he kicked in a locker in a fit of temper at the same event when told that his heart wasn’t;’t in good enough condition to allow him to race the 1500m). What did USA Swimming say? Nothing. Not – a – word.

Husain Al-Musallam, left, and his boss the Sheikh

And then a year later:

  • we find USA Swimming backing the status quo of a Uruguayan octogenarian president who had broken election promises so that he could remain in office for a third time and the door to backroom bargaining remained open.
  • we find USA swimming backing its vice-president to back for first-vice president and therefore heir apparent the Kuwaiti that did not have the backing of his own nation, Husain Al-Musallam despite legal documents from the U.S Justice Department citing him as a co-conspirator in a guilty-plea corruption case in which Richard Lai a Guam soccer official, received almost a million dollars from bank accounts in the control of Al-M usallam and his boss at the Olympic Council for Asian, Olympic kingmaker Sheikh Al-Sabah, a visitor to the FINA gala dinner at world titles last July in Budapest – and the latest controversial recipient of a FINA award.

Then in 2017: 

  • We saw the Asian Open Water Championships, the two Kuwaitis in charge of that realm, let a 10km race go in temperatures higher than the upper limit imposed in the sport in the wake of Fran Crippen. Japan protested and withdrew its team. Not in their jurisdiction that race but that’s hardly the point: a strong, emphatic statement from USA swimming on conditions imposed in the sport as a direct result of the findings of two reports – one of them independent and American to ensure the FINA process led to honest outcome – would have gone a long way to making clear that the safety and welfare of USA athletes was paramount to USA swimming and that the federation would and will act whenever they perceive risk and threat at the heart of FINA culture and governance.

The role and responsibility of leadership among people taking home large six-figure sums – and among those who volunteer (for that requires them to understand what it is they are volunteering to do, including the guardianship of athletes and their safety and welfare) – demands better, much better.

So, in answer to that reader of coach Madge’s: look beyond the pool, look to those who set the environment and accept unacceptable governance structures and regimes and cultures.

That does not explain Deena Deardurff, nor Babashoff, nor Kukors, nor Ender; nor the unknown defeated, nor the GDR guinea pigs some of whose names we only got to know through criminal proceedings against the likes of Dr Lothar Kipke 1998-2000; nor a whole ocean full of tears and woe – but it does speak to the importance of the watch of a gatekeeper and whether he is wide awake or wilfully blind to what he can clearly see.

I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: “I ran through here while you were looking the other way.” The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. “I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,” I said. The watchman still said nothing. “Does your silence indicate permission to pass?” – Franz Kafka

There in that spot of wilful blindness is the gateway through which rogues of many kinds see their chance.

Editorial: Time to note the importance of the watch of a gatekeeper and whether he is wide awake or wilfully blind to what he can clearly seeI ran past the first watchman. “Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: “I ran through here while you were looking the other way.” The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. “I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,” I said. The watchman still said nothing. “Does your silence indicate permission to pass?” – Franz Kafka


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