Editorial – The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series
“Knock. It. Down. And burn the remains.” That’s how Washington Post correspondent Sally Jenkins concludes a searing commentary under the banner “The Olympic flame has been extinguished. The USOC should be next.”
Spot on. Nail. On. Head. Here’s why, from Jenkins’ home run:
- “USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun made $1 million in salary and bonuses in 2016.”
- USA “women’s hockey squad members were paid just $6,000 in an entire four-year cycle.
- Team medalled “every Olympics since 1998, yet not until they staged a boycott were they granted a raise to a living wage”
- The “USOC is supposed to be a non-profit [like FINA – CL], yet 129 of its staff make over six figures, and 14 of its execs are paid more than $200,000”
- Team USA at the Winter Games included “a firefighter, a national guardsman, and a mechanic. But the USOC’s so-called ‘chief of sport performance’ Alan Ashley (got) nearly $500,000 in 2016.”
- “USOC’s board of directors handed out [to] five of them bonuses of $100,000 or more in 2016, tax records show.
- Beneficiaries of bonuses: Blackmun, Ashley, 2 in-house marketers; already making six figures
- Bonus for an American athlete who won a gold medal? Just $37,500.
You get the picture. Jenkins holds nothing back:
“The USOC is essentially defrauding us, and our champions. Blazer-wearing, propaganda-spouting executives maximize their own earnings, while devoting only the barest cash minimums and lip service to the actual care of athletes. If you were wondering how champion U.S. gymnasts could be sexually abused by a team doctor for years, consider that their training center was so shoddy they didn’t have a decent medical facility. Their ankles were taped sitting on a floor or in the bleachers.”
Knock. It. Down. Spot on. Nail. On. Head. Read every word of Jenkins’ commentary: an absolute must (also published in the Chicago Tribune), not just for Americans but for all of you in the world of swimming. Here is your world, a modern-day Olympic realm that Dickens could have turned his quill to: Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Uriah Heep, Fagin and the Artful Dodger. They’re all there somewhere in the “Olympic Family”.
No wonder U.S. Athletes are demanding radical change. Not before time. In a report at KOAA News, the USOC Athletes’ Advisory Council, led by Han Xiao, has asked USOC for a restructuring of the Sports Act.
There might have to be a more direct route to achieving that, given the inaction of sports bodies for many a long year now when matters are raised that don’t suit them.
Among campaigners for change, Olympian and AAC member Eli Bremer noted:
“…there’s a huge power imbalance now and that the staff and the board have all the power … That’s really the cultural problem that exists in the Olympics.”
Three-time Olympian and AAC member Keith Sanderson noted that the USOC “holds all the power in deciding who will compete in Olympic Games, adding:
“The USOC that’s the only avenue to the Olympics for an American. There’s no free enterprise, there’s no competition there They have a total monopoly on who the Olympians are. That monopoly power can leave athletes fearful to speak out, even if they’re abused because an Olympic dream can be dashed so easily.”
The flags fly, the flame flickers and the athletes shoot, ski, swim, run, fight and march in celebration of the ultimate sporting show on Earth. At least at the crust, a word apt when it comes to what the bulk of those athletes get out of it beyond the experience and reward of achievement. Bore down towards the core, past a seething swamp of the unacceptable, and we find a leadership at war (cold, at best) with its main stakeholders.
It hasn’t quite come to Pink Floyd yet – but Us and Them it already is:
Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat
And the lines on the map
Moved from side to side
Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who
Up and down
And in the end it’s only round ‘n round
Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words
The poster bearer cried
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There’s room for you inside
Inside the machine, they’re making way for poster girls these days. This site sincerely hopes that Kirsty Coventry‘s welcome elevation to the IOC Board will make a dent on the status quo but then she’s not the first podium placer to make it to the top table beyond their competitive days. After all, there’s fencer Thomas Bach – but his blade looks to have been blunted by too much quaffing with Putin and the likes, not to mention the troublesome business of telling a whole nation that its rotten, stinking, cheating, abusive approach to performance sport isn’t quite the stuff of Olympic spirit. More a drunken night out on Vodka, really.
In the end, Bach couldn’t bring himself and his top-table mates to do it; could not find a way to keep dopers out of the Games; could not find a way to exorcise the ghosts of a criminal Olympic past highlighted by a records and results tome stacked high with honour for victims of abuse who got their medal and paid a price for the rest of their lives. Bach should know it; he will surely have followed the doping trials of 1998-2000 in his own country; he will surely know the truth of it all. And yet, and yet …
Here we are: 2018, Russian hockey players take gold in a defeat of Germany and sing the Russian anthem with their fans, even though that was not supposed to happen. Was the gold removed in recognition of what was clearly a political statement? No, of course not.
- And when a U.S. snowboarder doesn’t want to talk about the behaviour that led him to a non-disclosure agreement with a women who alleged abuse, instinct, even as Larry Nassar was settling into his cell, did not tell athlete, minder USOC and all to face up to it, be transparent, be open, be aware of the power of #metoo, #timesup and the moment.
The Blackmun’s of the world sit at the crossroads of luxury lifestyles: to the right of the fat-cat domestic staffers of Olympic committee-dom are the ‘executive volunteers’ in charge of the show with all expenses paid for first-class and business travel, five-star hotels, chauffeurs, fine food and wine for weeks on end with every passing event (explaining why the number of championships and events in Olympic sport has entered the league of the obese in recent years) – and then, on top, fat per diems (for what it is impossible to say unless one accepts the lame and laughable; unless one assumes it is for their extraordinary talents – but that can’t be: I’ve met some of them, like the president of FINA, and ‘mediocre’ would be a classification too far on my score card); to the left, those funding it all, NBC and an assortment of other partners and business trading off the young folk who live … back to Floyd:
Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell
What calls them is something that means much more than those who run the show. As Jenkins puts it:
“American Olympians clearly will endure almost anything in order to chase greatness. It makes you sick to the point of heaves wondering how many potential American champions have been knocked off podiums by abuse, or poverty, or disillusion.”
Read Shirley Babashoff’s “Making Waves” – wonder at what the Shirley and Forbes swimmers and coaches have had to put up with all these years – and then wonder at the USA Swimming promotion of “Last Gold” and wonder why the most powerful domestic swim federation in then world did not mention Jack Nelson and has done nothing that has forced FINA to reconciliation, to recognition, to a process of exorcising those poltergeists – not sleeping dogs – left to lie for so long.
How many potential champions … from far more nations that the USA, of course.
Quick recall: Between 1973 and 1988, GDR women swimmers shattered 130 world records, won more than half of all Olympic medals available to them in the pool (1976, 1980 and 1988), almost two thirds of all world titles and 97 out of 104 European crowns.
All of that remains the official record of ‘achievement’ in Olympic and World and European Championship waters, no record, no medal ever recalled, no effort for reconciliation of victims on both sides of State Plan 14:25 ever made. Not. A. Single. One.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christiane Knacke, who on August 28, 1977, clocked 59.78 to become the first woman ever to crack the minute over 100m butterfly, took her medal from the 1980 Olympics to Games HQ in Lausanne. She arranged a meeting with Juan Samaranch, servant of Franco and, according to the book The KGB Plays Chess (Boris Gulko, Viktor Korchnoi, Vladimir Popow and Juri Felschtinski), an asset for the KGB in exchange for Soviet support for his candidacy as IOC President. Knacke pushed her medal across the table at Samaranch and said, this is not mine – it belongs to someone else’.
She was the third GDR swimmer home, after Caren Metschuck and Andrea Pollack. Then came Ann Osgerby (GBR), Lisa Curry (AUS) and Agneta Mårtensson (SWE).
When I spoke to Metschuk a while back, she was absolutely opposed to handing her medal back, despite the doping. Her reasoning? Well, she had worked hard for it; she believed the GDR was not alone in using doping (the overwhelming results pattern and predictability of it all suggested something else); and… tragedy of tragedy’s, she felt safer in a place where “doctors checked us every day and looked after our health”.
She felt, she said, that she had earned her medals and that she was in a safer environment than many other athletes.
Well, in the woeful context of the abuse in USA Gymnastics and in other USOC domains down the years, she may have had a (very dark) point.
Knacke felt differently, so back the medal went. Give it to Osgerby. Samaranch pushed the medal back across the table and said, according to Knacke, ‘keep it – you weren’t the only ones…’. So, the head of the IOC had in mind that Osgerby, Curry and Mårtensson were all doped?
Little wonder that neither he nor anyone else at the top table of the Olympic Movement, nor at FINA nor at USOC, nor at USA Swimming ever got anywhere remotely close to reaching agreement of two clear pathways to deal with the ghosts of its own past and recognise the pain caused: to those under-age girls asked to bend over tables, drop their pants and have a syringe-ful of steroid rammed in their backsides (yes, that is how it happened, the act recorded in Stasi documents at the place when Dr. Lothar Kipke’s Stasi watcher reports the brutality of the FINA Medical Commission man as he drove the needle home); and to those robbed of their rightful place in Olympic history, the families, coaches and supporters and funders who helped them get to where they got and then often had to help mop up the pieces of broken hearts and lives in the years beyond what should have been the height of recognised achievement.
Kipke has his FINA honour for service to the sport to this day. In January 2014, the international swimming federation’s Media Commission voted unanimously to support a call from this author – after a joint campaign on SwimVortex and Swimming World (beyond many years of such campaigns) for the FINA top table to consider a reconciliation process.
To this day? Not. A. Single. Word. Of. Response. Not even a polite ‘thinking about it’; not even a ‘no’. Blank out. Wilful Blindness. A refusal to even engage in a discussion.
And not for the first time – nor the last. A polite request from Bill Sweetenham, the Australian mentor, for FINA to submit to independent review as part of an effort to end a growing schism between FINA and its major stakeholders, swimmers and coaches, the World Swimming Coaches Association and peer organisations from around the world, put their names to the same plea.
To this day? Not. A. Single. Word. Of. Response. Not even a polite ‘thinking about it’; not even a ‘no’. Blank out. Wilful Blindness. A. refusal to even engage in a discussion.
We could run that line on myriad matters for the next month and still not close the list of examples that ended in the same.
Last week, we sent FINA, USAS and USA Swimming questions as part of this Safe Sport Series. We sent them to coaching organisations World and American; we put some to Mark Schubert (answers from ASCA and coach Schubert to be published tomorrow after an unavoidable delay at this end) ; we asked athletes.
All answered – expect FINA, USAS and USA Swimming.
Yes, of course, there are good people doing good work at USA Swimming (and FINA) and many, many more across American swimming as Don Heidary rightly notes – but there will be a time to return to celebrating that, as I have done for many a long year. For now, it’s not the point. It is the other side to the story, and this kind of recollection of a life in swimming from a chief psychiatry resident at Stanford University, the college home of a great swimmer who has had only praise for her coaches and programs, Katie Ledecky; and it is what is not happening that matters in the debate about the rot at the root of Olympic sport.
The fact is that those in leadership positions in Olympic sport all too often feel no need to engage with stakeholders; they feel no need to engage with media, particularly not the media that asks: that inquiry into two missing EPO tests never reported to WADA in 2009 – what happened to it? And did you raise the matter with the FINA Bureau member Vladimir Salnikov (left), who in return for letting the tow young athletes off the hook got the name of the doctor who provided the EPO – only to have his inquiries shut down by Russian law enforcement? Good intention, perhaps – bad circumstance – wrong pathway. The young athletes went unprotected.
It was all in contravention of the WADA Code, too, of course – the Code FINA is a signatory too but appears not to feel a need to follow when cases fall shy of convenience, would be troublesome to what matters most, things like granting Vladimir Putin FINA’s highest honour in October 2014 on the cusp of a systematic doping crisis.
That was the year after Yulia Efimova* tested positive for a steroid; the year Sun Yang* tested positive for a heart booster; the year before FINA talked to a British PR outfit about a $150,000, four-month plan on the way to 2015 world titles in Kazan that would use Michael Phelps as a poster boy (fat chance) for Julio Maglione’s ambitions to keep the FINA presidency into his 80s (thus breaking two election promises) and to “discredit” (their word) critics, including ASCA head John Leonard and SwimVortex.
Where was the voice of USA Swimming? Well, nowhere to be heard, that’s for sure. Did it ask its rep, FINA vice-president Dale Neuburger what the hell was going on? And when, in 2016 Phelps, coach Bob Bowman and teenager Lilly King raised the issue of cheating in sport and governors having dropped the ball, where was the voice of USA Swimming?
I put that very question to Chuck Wielgus on that occasion and when USA open water swimmers boycotted the first FINA World Cup open water event to return to the UAE just three years after Fran Crippen’s death in waters off the same coast in the same event.
In the midst of lengthy exchanges laden with too many excuses and let-out clauses, Wielgus thought it was “more powerful” for the message to come from the athletes themselves. But surely, you, the well-paid governors and leaders of the sport, ought to be speaking up on their behalf? For the most part, they are just kids or little more, after all. They are amateurs or at best subsidised amateurs, while you are professionals paid very highly to serve in leadership and guardianship roles. Where are the voices of your Board – why are they not speaking up against things that are clearly wrong?
At that point, Wielgus, who passed away in 2017 and cannot reply to this, got angry in his exchange and suggested I was wrong to judge good and knowledgeable people who just had a different opinion to mine.
Opinion? Hopefully not. Why would any good person in USA Swimming not wish to denounce the promotion by FINA of the man in charge on the day Fran Crippen died when the report commissioned by the federation clearly put a deal of blame for their athlete’s death on the organisers and the circumstances on that fateful day? Why would USA Swimming folk not wish to denounce the spending of $150,000 on a PR plan that not only contained actionable proposals but had absolutely no chance of success? The questions run.
Like this one: why did USA Swimming’s man Neuburger back Husain Al-Musallam of Kuwait for FINA first vice-president even after the U.S. Justice Department cited the Kuwaiti and his Olympic king-maker boss Sheikh Al-Sabah as “co-conspirator” No2 and No3 in the guilty plea case brought against Richard Lai, the Guam soccer official who had close to a million dollars placed in his bank account sent from an account in the control off the two Kuwaitis? Why did Neuburger simply not convey to Al-Musallam that the right thing to do was to step aside, clear his name in a court of law and then return should all go well?
Neuburger sat in the media seats taking notes during a press conference in Budapest last July when this author put a series of questions to Maglione, including: “Who voted for the award to be given to Putin …?”
It was “the Bureau”. So, who is lying, then, if you say ‘the Bureau’ but seven of them have told this author that they were never asked? My question sparked a surge of anger in Maglione that was slightly suppressed by director Cornel Marculescu, who first placed his hand on the microphone so that Maglione’s outburst in Spanish couldn’t be heard too well by the whirring cameras and then on the president’s hand to calm a man caught by his own words.
The truth: the Bureau was not consulted. A handful of folk – at most – voted for Putin to receive FINA’s highest honour: a non-profit (of the kind Jenkins scoffs at in her commentary) rubbing shoulders with a political leader about to be exposed as having signed a decree that ordered all Russian anti-dopoing samples to be checked at the border before leaving the country. The order was later rescinded but the damage was done, the culture and lack of adherence to the WADA Code exposed.
No need to go further. Simply take Jenkins’ recommendations and apply them to FINA and all those big federations, like USA Swimming, that have lived in fear of it and the chain of money and might – when she frames it in American and USOC context:
- First, Congress should dismiss the entire USOC executive staff, and board of directors for cause, and appoint a special chairman to a limited term to clean up this mess.
- Second, Congress should rewrite the USOC’s charter to reflect that athletes are the heart and financial engine of the U.S. Olympic movement, by mandating that fully 50 percent of all USOC revenues go directly to individual competitors and team stipends … pro-sport style…
She asks: “How many Olympians are we sacrificing to this grotesquely bloated, lazy, selfish system of executive pay? … How many scrabble for funds, and deal with abusive coaches, only to hear that the USOC’s million-dollar CEO and his flanking lawyers just don’t think it’s their job to protect our best and most self-motivated kids from predators?”
The Olympic model of governance is part of the problem not the solution. Time for that Congress hearing; time for the same processes elsewhere – time for the scrutiny of this senate hearing into soccer, followed by consequence and a demand for change.
Time for the end of the autonomy of sport, itself among the victims of the “grotesquely bloated, lazy, selfish system of executive pay …” – and that world described by Andrew Jennings in “The New Lords of the Rings” that has yet to have a stake driven through its heart.