If Prohibition Must Sober The Olympics, Then Ban The Blazers Craving Nobel Prizes

 SwimVortex is running a series scrutinising sports governance and the structures that underpin it. From domestic to international, federations and associations are coming under scrutiny like never before. For good reason, too. Safe Sport and athlete protection is in focus.

This week, we are considering the issues in play. Next week, we will post the questions we put to key players as swimming wrestles with its own #metoo and #Time’sUp challenges; we will ask those players to respond and, the week after – providing plenty of time to reply – bring you their replies and note any ‘no comment’ returns and explanations as well as any lack of response.  Our series so far.

Today, we looked at a call from coaches to have the global swimming community put pressure on FINA, and thus the IOC, to change their ways. That call focusses on doping and clean sport.

Here’s the other, massive abuse issue in play:

In the tidal wave of coverage taking a sledgehammer to the United States Olympic Committee (much of it overdue and deserved, without a shadow of a doubt), a reporter at the Huffington Post raised many of the same, salient points as those penned far and wide by his colleagues but then misfires when it comes to understanding how the abuses we have seen in the USA could have gone on for so long without a gun going off.

The mistake was writ large: the headline – Ban The United States From The Olympics – then the payoff to the story: “Some time away from Olympic competition might just help. Ban us.”

Well, that would be one way of making victims of victims and folk who’ve done nothing wrong, for sure. Try the opposite:

The Games stay, the athletes, stay, all the good folk, from coaches to officials, volunteers who roll their sleeves up and whistle while they work get to stay – and the cheats and governors and their warped and self-serving governance model and structure get a lifetime ban from the Games”.

That might go down a storm, though the blazers could be expected to resist. The Huff article highlights a misguided and all-too-narrow vision when it suggests banning USA athletes from the Olympics as a reasonable solution to a rogue doc (Larry Nassar, down for 175 years or until he is no more) and the folk and system who/that enabled him. It compares sex abuse with doping though the two are apples and pears, meeting only in the bowl of blazers drunk on the punch of life in the VIP lounge and then caught falling asleep at the wheel.

The bigger point is that the entire Olympic governance structure is in urgent need of review, reform and independent oversight and the days of autonomy should be brought to an end because that, and its universality structure, enables abuses of many kinds on a regular basis around the globe.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the evidence of what lies behind the constant presence in the moment-of-glory photos pumped out by the Movement’s machine at the Winter Olympics in Korea of IOC boss Thomas Bach (and his mates), with winners winning, with winners getting their white tigers, with winners professing of the Games that give after all the hard work they put in.

Here’s a must read from investigative reporter Jens Weinreich at the Play the Game website today. It includes the following:

For decades, powerful sports leaders have wooed for the Nobel Peace Prize. The corrupt FIFA President João Havelange (†) wanted the prize, his successor Joseph Blatter as well. Bach’s IOC mentor, longtime president Juan Antonio Samaranch (†), even commissioned an advertising agency (Grey) to influence the Nobel Prize committee and acquire the prize. Former IOC member Robert Helmick would admit that deal in public. After the Norwegian journalist Frank Brandsås unveiled the story, how Grey and its daughter company GCI influenced members of the committee on behalf of the IOC, in the newspaper Arbeiderbladet prior to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Samaranch and the IOC became a laughing stock.

At least three of those above are members of the club of Olympic controversies, allegations of corruption rife when they either resigned or were forced to resign from top roles at the IOC or FIFA.

Let the world be warned, writes Weinreich. Let athletes be warned to: he notes that the story of Bach’s ‘eligibility’ for the Prize he should never even be considered for given the woe and abuse swilling about his neck, came from Angela Ruggiero, the USA head of the IOC Athletes Commission until the end of this month.

In a week in which the peace dividend is flagged up as a visit to the Games from a dictator’s sister and an invite for Bach to pop in for tea or kaffee trinken with her brother when the sport is done and the politics is all that’s left (never mind the undernourished masses), it beggars belief that any athlete/former athlete, would even dream of putting any head of the IOC up for any prize until clean sport and a healthy and safe environment that places competitors aloft a podium of priorities.

Thomas Bach raises a glass with Vladimir Putin

Alongside the photos of Bach with winning athletes are others in which he chinks glasses with Vladimir Putin, the commander in chief of a doping army that demands child protection measures and accompanying punishments be slapped on any who fall shy of best-practice. That would include the doctor who gave EPO to two Russian teenager swimmers in 2009 ahead of them testing positive and before Vladimir Salnikov (right), three times Olympic champion for the Soviet Union and now head of Russian swimming and a member of the FINA Bureau, broke the WADA Code by failing to report the cases to the anti-dopign body. Consequences? None. Neither from the IOC, nor FINA, nor WADA, not any of those who could and should have asked Salnikov about the circumstances (oppression in the mix) in which he felt it wise not to uphold his responsibility to clean sport.

And all those issues before we get to corruption proven and that yet subject to legal scrutiny in the stream of gala dinners void of stars but black with a murder of blazers cheering as the likes of FINA hand out prizes to the Olympic king and his kingmaker from Kuwait, a man cited as a co-conspirator with his right-hand man, the No 2 at FINA, in a guilty-plea fraud case brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

But then, it is, of course, the way things have been done: PR outfits, promoters, marketeers and merchandisers. Sure, there are rules – but who doesn’t like a good bargain agreed upon by like-minded members of this market we’ve made a marvel of and a mint out of, complete with its gladiators and the gold medals that convert to currencies real for the few at the top of one of the most heavily subsidised sectors on the planet.

Not a paid, sackable top-tabler in sight, the Olympic edifice built on grace, favour and per diems of $350 and much more for those who say the money is there because they have to miss work (tip: reach for a hanky before moving on, lest you should wish to laugh or cry) in service to the Olympic cause … but seem to be busy on Games business for 100, 200 and more days a year (hands up how many of you out there could skip so many days of work each year for voluntary projects with your employers blessing).

The Nobel Peace Prize

The per diems – handed out after every possible expense has been covered, from business flights to five-star hotels, limos and fine food – are standard procedure in the Olympic Movement – just not for athletes.

One can imagine it might be easy to have delusions of Nobel grandeur in such rarified climes, though the prevailing wind of #MeToo and #Times’Up has arrived with a force greater than the gusts up on the slopes of Pyeongchang.

Days after USOC leaders and the USA’s IOC members got a roasting from the media as the calls for Scott Blackmun’s scalp spread beyond the campaigners for the Safe Sport Act and child protection in the wake of Nassar’s sexual abuse of scores of gymnasts, Olympic champions and podium placers in the mix, we arrive, from afar, at a press conference for Shaun White.

The snowboarder is being hailed for his victory as flashlights catch the smile of a man 19 on his first gold, 23 on his second and now 31 as his story transcends his sport. Yes, there’s the age and the journey – but there’s this, too:

Shaun White just called the awful allegations against him “gossip” in a press conference where no woman journalist was called upon even though several, including me, had their hand up the entire time.

It was tweeted by Christine Brennan, the much-respected USA journalist, a USA Today columnist and ABC News, CNN, PBS and NPR commentator. She  followed her attempts to get a question in with the following article highlighting the sexual harassment claim made against the snowboarder and the non-disclosure settlement that followed:

That Brennan’s hand, along with all others belonging to women in the room, was ignored may well be coincidence. After all, the Olympic Movement, in common with many of its members, FINA included, is more of a Man’s World than one might expect it to be in 2018. And then there’s this from White when he was asked about the sexual harassment allegations and settlement:

“Honestly, I’m here to talk about the Olympics, not gossip. I am who I am, and I’m proud of who I am and my friends love me and vouch for me and I think that stands on its own.”

Gossip? Well, not quite, it seems. The allegations made against him are, writes Brennan, “incredibly disturbing”. She then provides some of what is out there in the world of coverage: “White sent her images of erect penises, forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, including videos sexualizing human fecal matter, and made vulgar sexual remarks about her relationship with her boyfriend, according to the complaint…”

Lovely. Oh, to be on Olympian Heights when the weather turns. Brennan is right to raise a hand and ask for answers to questions that should not and must not be stifled just because a man can snowboard better than anyone else that day or any other.

Ariana Kukors at her swimming Oscars moment [photo: USA Swimming]

This series is about Safe Sport, which means safe people and safe environment. That is not just about what happened to gymnasts and what Ariana Kukors alleges or what both sides say in the other side of the Sean White story. It is about how those who govern, manage, market and promote Olympic sport deal with such matters. It is about what processes are in place to deal with such things, where any such processes came from, which experts built them and why.

Such things are not poorly researched in this world, the resource library at the NSPCC (the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, founded 1884) alone indicates that there’s no shortage of awareness and information out there.

Today, guidelines drawn up (in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations) by the British Film Institute, BAFTA, BECTU, Equity, Pact, The Production Guild, Women in Film & TV, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the UK Screen Alliance, UK Interactive Entertainment feel somewhat tardy to the latest generation of actresses.  As Emma Watson, Hermione in Harry Potter, put it:

“These principles are important because up until recently there were no guidelines. There was no protocol for someone that had been sexually harassed in the entertainment industry and I know this to be a fact because I’ve asked for principles, I’ve asked to see guidelines and no one could give them to me. No one could send me – “OK, here’s the protocol that we follow when someone’s had this experience” – which I found shocking.”

So, the question to the IOC, FINA, USA Swimming et al is: where’s your protocol. Answers may not include general rules about bringing the sport into disrepute and the like. She know bad things are banned (though many bad things unfold and go unpunished or all but unpunished, the rule breakers a part of the very fabric of families Olympic and swimming – and let no-one dare challenge that, lest the next 10 volumes of our work set out to prove them wrong, reaching as we could and would for the many shelves of swimming history stacked with examples.

What we mean when we ask for protocol s a clear, published procedure of what happens when a rumour reaches HQ that swimmer A and CoachB/or another Guardian of said swimmer are involved in  a sexual relationship. What happens when the phone rungs and swimmer A wants to report her story but does not want to incriminate herself? What happens when Coach B , as do colleagues around him, remain silent because they do not wish to incriminate themselves?

There are other question to put stemming from the allegations in “My Story” by Ariana Kukors. For example:

  • USA Swimming: Ariana Kukors recalls it correctly, your 2011 ‘investigation’ in rumours of a relationship between her and her coach (a man selected by you as a national team coach) amounted to a “short” phone call in which she answered “about 19” questions put to her by a private eye.
  • Is that correct?
  • And if so, does the organisation look back and think it was appropriate to approach the delicate subject of possible sexual abuse, with all the controlling factors that might be in play, with a short series of questions between a stranger and a young woman on a telephone?
  • To the question put to both swimmer and coach – did you have sex (or words to that effect)? – were those at the helm of USA Swimming aware that such a question includes the potential for self-incrimination? Was that taken into account?
  • Was Ariana Kukors interviewed by other experts?
  • Was Ariana Kukors interviewed in the presence of her parents or legal representative?

Well send these and other questions to USA Swimming in due course as we ask for answers far and wide in the interests of transparency and proper discussion on an issue that cannot be set right in the absence of truthfulness and frank and open exchanges, including seeking information from others close to the case, such as (recognising, of course, that some of those close to the Kukors case may be under legal instruction to reserve what they have to say for legal process):

  • Michael Brooks, of the King Aquatics program where Kukors’ alleged abuser and former coach Sean Hutchison was based – what did you know and did you press USA Swimming to tell you what it knew and when because you had ask obligation to protect the swimmers and kids in your team? That’s the question being put by coach Chris DeSantis in his blog and in the midst of raising the issues with many other coaches in open discussion on the Swim Coaches Ideas Exchange forum on facebook.
  • Mark Schubert, the former USA Team Director, who indicated that he had been a whistleblower in the Hutchison case but was also involved in a wrongful dismissal case, settled out of court, of an assistant coach after she filed a complaint against another of Schubert assistant, Bill Jewell, for inappropriate behaviour towards female swimmers.

A year after Dia C Rianda was dismissed from Golden West, the Schubert program, Jewell was handed a three-year suspension handed down by USA Swimming back in 2013. Notification was sent to the Golden West Swim Club and the Southern California Swimming LSC where he had worked.

The accompanying explanation read:

“USA Swimming’s case against Mr. Jewell was based on a pattern of inappropriate behavior, including making sexually explicit comments toward athletes and other individuals affiliated with the club. There was no allegation of or evidence to support inappropriate sexual touching.”

Jewell had served as head coach of the FAST club in Fullerton, California at a time the program was a funded USA Swimming Center of Excellence.

Sean Hutchison’s publicity shot from TYR, the American suit maker

Ironically, it was Jewell who was in charge at FAST as CEO and head coach, when Hutchison resigned as a coach there in 2010. A Washington Post report from the time includes this line:

  • Hutchison acknowledged that his decision to leave came shortly after a club official confronted him about rumors that he was having a relationship with one of his female swimmers, but he said the rumors were untrue and did not compel his departure. The official, Bill Jewell, FAST’s chief operating officer and head coach, said he met with Hutchison to discuss the rumors, but did not urge Hutchison to resign. “He is going his own way,” Jewell said. “I’m just not comfortable with some of the rumors, and I addressed them with him. Basically, the rest is pretty much private and personal and I don’t want to get into it.”

The questions on all the above issues have one thing in common: the desire and need  for answers is all the more keen because of the apparent obfuscation of official bodies that often preach transparency but show far less of it.

That becomes all the more obvious when press conferences such as that in which Brennan’s hand was ignored and only questions from men were taken from the top table, the man representing Team USA doing what many people in similar positions linked to federations, FINA-like organisations and the likes of the USOC leadership do on a regular basis: promote and stifle any attempt to police, the media not, of course, a law enforcement power but there, most certainly, to put serious questions that need asking of public figures not at a moment of best convenience but at the moment they become highly relevant.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 100m freestyle champion, lawyer and long-time advocacy for safe sport and child protection in sport, took to social media today: 

“Sexual harassers and abusers can be great movie producers, charming morning show hosts, political writers, quarterbacks in the NFL… they can run networks and ballet companies, be elected officials, award-winning artists. The damage these men inflict on women and children isn’t absolved by any of these great fetes.”

It was precisely the point we made in this feature yesterday, which considered some other famous folk who achieved much – and also caused a great deal of harm to others in the process.

In other words: wake up to it USOC leadership and all in an Olympic realm with a history soaked in the woe of sexual, doping and other forms of abuse that often went unchecked and unchallenged by those in charge: the status quo and business as usual just won’t do any longer. #MeToo, #TimesUp is not going away. Those who know of the horrors of Olympic history are among those who are not going to let this go this time round. They mean to take it to End Game, in the interests of having Safe Sport and the welfare of athletes top of the Olympic podium – even if that means tearing down the house to get there.

That mission is not all-female. Far from it. In the ranks of the men supporting the women in the drive to have the world catch up is Eli Bremer, a Team USA Pentathlete in his day.

His terrific response to airing beyond social media and the wave of support he has attracted for his posts focussing on leadership problems in the USOC, included:

“The USOC Board led by Chairman Larry Probst, is telling athletes that they need to stop the attacks on the USOCs failed management because it will somehow take away from the glory of US Olympians winning medals in Korea. I have a major problem with this line of thinking for several reasons.”

“First, does the leadership of the USOC really think that they should be given a pass on failure to protect hundreds of young girls from assault because they think the timing is not optimal? Were the victims of a failed system given the choice in the timing of their abuse? I also think it is a bit insulting to the athletes competing to think they are so selfish that they would not want the publicity of their accomplishments to help protect their fellow Olympians.

“Second, virtually all the athletes I know compete for internal reasons, not to become famous on TV. With the exception of just a handful of athletes, these Olympians will return home to normal life where they can walk into a grocery store and no one will recognize them. And they are okay with that. Top athletes believe they compete against themselves, and winning a medal is a result of a personal journey more than anything else.”

“Third, athletes actually don’t really make any money in the broken system we have… even if they win a medal and get put on prime-time TV. I know this since I have worked on a commercial basis with over 100 Olympians who have won over 65 medals. I know that realistically an athlete returns home to a country that has moved on to the NHL and NBA seasons thus leaving the athletes with no opportunity to market for four more years. So financially, no athlete will be hurt by any ‘distraction’ because they won’t get paid anyway.”

From my perspective, I don’t see a lot of “harm” that would be done to our Team USA heroes though the USOC finally doing the right thing and agreeing to hold the individuals who allowed systemic sexual abuse accountable.

So why is the USOC Board so terrified of athletes brining up this issue now? It actually is all about money, but it is not about money for athletes. Four major sponsors withdrew support of USA Gymnastics because of the handling of the sexual assaults. Virtually none of that money would go to athletes anyway. I think the USOC leadership is terrified that USOC sponsors will be upset with them for not mitigating the problem. And they should be. These sponsors pay a ton of money (demonstrably under 20% ever gets to athletes), to affiliate with the Olympics. They expect a quality product and brand for what they pay.

The CEO of the Olympic Committee is paid roughly $100,000 every MONTH for his position. I’m hearing from people in private meetings with him that he is whining and complaining about how people expected him to somehow stop this. The Board of Directors is taking a similar approach. What they fail to see is that with great power (and pay) comes great responsibility. You can’t collect a seven-figure salary (while 80% of Olympians live in poverty) and then whine about being held accountable for results. For the Board, you can’t expect to hold such a prestigious position and then complain when the athletes who you harmed decide to stand up for themselves.

Bremer then explains why that is utter nonsense and concludes:

“It’s time for change. Yesterday, I was encouraged in discussions with two US Senate offices who are very concerned about the situation. And while I’m sure the USOC CEO and Chairman don’t seem to understand why they should be held accountable, I seriously doubt a group of Senators will see it the same way.”

Terrific. The heart, soul and mindset of the athlete, you know the ones, the folk who play the starring roles in sport. Little wonder that we find Hogshead-Makar, among those calling for Blackmun’s scalp, responding with this:

It’s the SAME PLAYBOOK! The gymnasts think that the USOC/ USAG didn’t investigate their assault complaints because it would have interfered with the Rio Olympics!
The Lopez brothers weren’t disciplined for rape because it would interfere with the Rio Olympics!
Money and Medals over athlete protection – again and again.

The modern-day equivalent of words and wishes for the those who obfuscate and fail to deal with the issues of the day that we find Oliver Cromwell unleashing on the Rump Parliament in 1653:

  • “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place,
    which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice.
    Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.
    Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
    Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?
    Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
    Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?
    Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.
    Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do.
    I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place.
    Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.
    In the name of God, go!”

Quite so. Cromwell had to go, too, not that long after. A better fate awaits those forcing a brighter future on the present run bob people whose mindset and ways of doing business are well past their sell-by date.

The SwimVortex safe Sport series: why its time for the Olympic creed of athletes and good folk to be: “The Games stay, the athletes, stay, all the good folk, from coaches to officials, volunteers who roll their sleeves up and whistle while they work get to stay – and the cheats and governors and their warped and self-serving governance model and structure get a lifetime ban from the Games”.

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