The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series
Mark Schubert, the former USA swimming head coach who served on eight USA Olympic teams, told the federation’s chief executive “numerous times” that coach Rick Curl ought to be investigated on suspicion of sexual abuse of swimmers but always got the same response from the man in charge: “I can do nothing unless an athlete reports to me directly”.
Schubert is among those under pressure to say what they knew when and what they did about it and ‘come clean’, as some have written, on past behaviours that today would be considered wholly unacceptable.
A call from advocates of victims of abuse for Schubert, as well as Richard Young, USA Swimming lawyer, the USA’s FINA vice-president Dale Neuburger and Ross Wales, the former Olympic podium placer and then USA Swimming President of the early 1980s but long since moved on from the sport, to be “removed from the Olympic Movement” for “enabling over 250 child molester coaches and officials”, was “absolutely ridiculous”, Schubert told SwimVortex.
Jonathan Little, the Indianapolis-based attorney who made his call in the USA media, is “in my opinion, an ambulance chaser”, said Schubert, before asserting that he had never enabled the abuse alleged and proved. He described Little’s accusation against him as “an extremely false statement”.
Schubert did accept, however, that there was a case to answer – and the questions from Little and other advocates he is working with, such as San Jose-based lawyer Robert Allard, representing Ariana Kukors in her case against coach Sean Hutchison, should go straight to USA Swimming.
Asked by SwimVortex where he felt responsibility rested for cases that might have been dealt with long ago, he said:
“I have to be honest and say that it is the leadership of USA Swimming by Chuck Wielgus.”
The former CEO, who passed away after a long fight with cancer last year, apologised for not having done enough soon enough to speak up for victims off abuse after he was forced to withdraw from induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Women’s Sports Foundation, with 1984 Olympic 100m free champion-turned lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar at the helm, led the charge against Wielgus and ISHOF issued the following statement signed by Wielgus, and Hall of Fame leaders Donna deVarona and Bruce Wigo:
“After significant reflection and discussion, International Swimming Hall of Fame Chairwoman Donna deVarona and President/CEO Bruce Wigo, and USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus jointly announce that Mr. Wielgus’ name will be withdrawn from consideration of the Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony should be a time to celebrate our sport and the outstanding accomplishments of the individuals being honored. Both ISHOF and USA Swimming believe our mutual decision is in the best interest of the swimming community as a whole and we are committed to working constructively together with other organizations, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, to end sexual abuse and ensure a safe culture for athletes.”
In reiterating that he had reported abuse allegations to Wielgus on “numerous” occasions, Schubert cited the high-profile case of coach Rick Curl and swimmer Kelly Currin, which resulted in Curl serving a jail term. Schubert said that he first became aware of the allegations against Curl during Schubert’s time as coach at the University of Texas from 1989 to 1992. He said:
“I had a girl sent to me by a therapist. She told me about her experience but I was asked by the athlete NOT to divulge the details of that case because there was a confidentiality agreement in place. Years later, when I was at USA Swimming and the whole Safe Sport program was taking off [and the list of banned coaches was yet a confidential collation of problems and potential problems] I told Chuck on numerous occasions about that case. If what I told him was not cause to investigate I don’t know what would be.”
Eventually, Curl was prosecuted – and jailed.
Currin told AP in 2012 that Curl agreed to pay her $150,000 in return for not pursuing criminal charges after an illicit four-year relationship. She was represented by Allard, the same lawyer now acting for Kukors.
Allard called for a complete change of leadership at USA Swimming, including the dismissal of executive director Chuck Wielgus.
USA Swimming countered that it has put in place a new Safe Sport program that was “a model for all Olympic sports”, with mandatory training for more than 31,000 non-athlete members, enhanced background checks on nearly 36,000. They also pointed to the 16 new lifetime bans imposed between Safe Sport launch in 2010 and the AP article in 2012.
At the time, Currin said that none of that was enough. She noted what Schubert now tells SwimVortex. In a 2012 statement, Currin said:
“I have stated all along that numerous people in the swim world knew what Rick Curl did to me. It was the worst kept secret. I read the lawsuit filed against Mark Schubert. I am angry in reading that USA Swimming failed terribly when they had an opportunity to act against Rick Curl when coach Schubert informed Chuck Wielgus on numerous occasions about Curl’s molestation of me. The fact that Chuck Wielgus and USA Swimming allegedly tried to cover up for Rick Curl by forcing Mark Schubert to accept hush money in return for signing a confidential agreement is outrageous. If USA Swimming has any integrity they would fire Wielgus and the rest of the staff that continues to protect sexual predators.”
USA Swimming denied that it had paid Schubert a $650,000 termination settlement in order to silence him on the abuse allegations he had wanted the federation about.
Schubert’s assertion that USA Swimming’s leadership was not culturally receptive to pursuing investigative processes when they were informed of disturbing and/or highly questionable behaviour, some of that bordering on and even crossing the line of criminality, matches the experience of this website.
In 2015, at a time when FINA’s leadership followed up granting its highest honour to Vladimir Putin without reference to the entire ruling Bureau – and thus in contravention of its own constitution and rules – with a PR campaign to discredit critics (to specifically seek to ‘discredit’ someone can be interpreted as illegal in defamation law – article reproduced from the archive at the foot of this report) and use Michael Phelps as a poster boy via a meeting to be arranged with Chuck Wielgus and the president of FINA, USA-Swimming backed Julio Maglione, SwimVortex wrote to Wielgus to seek his opinion.
This author noted that FINA was simply ignoring all attempts to get response to pressing questions on doping, Putin, a $150,000 budget for a four-month campaign to discredit critics, including coach-leadership representatives and this website, and much else.
SwimVortex highlighted the details of that proposal, leading Wielgus to reply:
“I have no knowledge of any specific FINA proposal, and thus feel it would be inappropriate for me to comment.”
This author replied:
“We have very different jobs you and I. Even so, I urge you to feel hungrier for knowledge …
“I was asking you what you thought about the proposal in question, the budget that would go on it and the fact that you, USA Swimming, are cited as a partner helpful to that cause, one in which your coaches are to be discredited’. The way to find out about the proposal is to ask the U.S. Bureau member. Dale [Neuburger, FINA vice-president] would surely be able to help out, unless he is prepared to say he knows nothing about this.”
“Craig, If FINA wants me to see the proposal, then I’m sure they’ll send it to me. I don’t feel the need to chase it down.”
It is that last sentence – one that seems to suggest ‘if the suspect wishes to show me exhibit A, I’m sure he’ll send it to me’ – that sums up the accusations against Wielgus and the USA Swimming leadership from victims of abuse and their advocates.
‘Can’t do anything … that was the stock response’
A USA Olympic Swim Team coach at eight Games between 1980 and 2008 and coach and head coach at various World Championships covering the bulk of the years in which Michael Phelps dominated the sport, Schubert is one of the biggest names in coaching. The list of pupils he has worked with at various stages of his and their careers down the years, reads like a who’s who of the sport and includes Shirley Babashoff, Brian Goodell, Mike O’Brien, Janet Evans, Tiffany Cohen, Sippy Woodhead, Lenny Krayzelburg, Jill Sterkel, Lindsay Benko (now, under her married name of Mintenko, the National Team Director for USA Swimming), Erik Vendt, Larsen Jensen and Kaitlin Sandeno.
Schubert served as USA Swimming’s Performance head between 2006 and 2010. His contract with USA Swimming was terminated and a settlement was reached between Schubert and his former employer before the coach returned to club coaching.
- For the background on that, this article penned by Karen Crouse at the New York Times on the day Schubert spoke about his dismissal is a fine start.
Supportive of the current Safe Sport moves and the mood for change in the past several years at USA Swimming, Schubert is, nonetheless, critical of Wielgus and others who worked with him and, Schubert assumes, would have been informed of what the CEO knew. Those people are likely to include the likes of Rich Young, called out by Little and senior Board members of United States Aquatic Sports and USA Swimming.
Schubert tells SwimVortex:
“When I was working there I mentioned numerous times that there had been allegations made against Rick Curl. Every time, his [Wielgus] response was ‘if the athlete does not report this to me directly then I can do nothing’. That was their stock response so many times that I saw no further need to keep reporting the same things: they knew about them, they had been told. It sounded to me like the legal advice he was getting.”
SwimVortex has asked for response to questions about abuse allegations and related themes, including specific questions about a legal agreement said to have been designed to silence Tracy Palmero, a swimmer who alleged that Everett Uchiyama, who served as National Team Director between 2002-2006, had had a sexual relationship with her at a time she was a minor.
Details given and assertions made by the Palmero family to the Orange County Register last week raised questions even among supporters of USA Swimming, one senior figure telling SwimVortex:
“This suggests that USA Swimming knew Uchiyama was a child molester, did not stop him from returning to work in the sport and revealed nothing, having pressed the victim to stay silent in a non-disclosure deal to save their faces. Are we now to believe what none of us ever believed … that USA Swimming appears to have paid someone to stay silent?”
In the Safe Sport series that SwimVortex has been running for the past three weeks, we have received replies from WSCA, ASCA and, in this article, Mark Schubert; a polite reply of acknowledgement from athletes representing athletes – and, after a follow-up to ask for an acknowledgment of receipt, USA Swimming last night sent a note to say the questions had been received and
“ …should addressing them be something we are in a position to do moving forward we will advise you of such”.
Uchiyama – Life Ban But A ‘USA Swimming’ Thumbs Up To Work On
It was 2010 when the Associated Press new agency reported, in the wake of Uchiyama being banned for life by USA Swimming, the details of a job recommendation for Uchiyama even after he had been slapped with a permanent ban from USA Swimming, for which he served as Team Director even though he had no outstanding track record as a man who had delivered world-class results in the pool relative to what many of his peers were capable of boasting of.
At the time, Uchiyama was the highest profile name on the first list, of 46 coaches, that USA Swimming had imposed permanent bans on.
Even so, that did not prevent a key figure at USA Swimming issuing a glowing recommendation for Uchiyama ton take a position as Aquatics Director at the Country Club of Colorado.
Uchiyama was employed there until the list of banned members was made public.
The AP reported that the glowing recommendation was penned by Pat Hogan, the managing director of club development for USA Swimming. In answer for references on the following, Hogan had the following answers on Uchiyama:
- Dependability: “Yes, more than was required.”
- Ability to get along with others: “Fantastic. Most popular employee in (organization).”
- Initiative: “Outstanding”
- AP reported that Hogan had also noted that Uchiyama resigned for “personal choice”, that he was not Uchiyama’s supervisor – but that he would rehire Uchiyama at USA Swimming if given the chance.
The permanent ban on Uchiyama was not mentioned.
AP reported all of that in 2010. And yet, Hogan stayed in his position until last week, when he resigned from his post on the same days as USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Director Susan Woessner stepped down acknowledging a conflict of interest that she had failed to declare.
The year after the leadership of the Fullerton club where Hutchison worked met the coach in 2010 to ask him about the rumours that he and Kukors were in a relationship, USA Swimming ‘investigated’ the same rumours. In her “My Story” revelations last month, Kukors alleged that Hutchison had groomed her, started a sexual relationship with her when she was a minor and even held a particular sex act back as an 18th birthday present. Hutchison denies the allegations, while both he and Kukors have acknowledge that they lied to the 2011 inquiry when asked if they had had a sexual relationship.
A few years earlier, Woessner had been close enough to Hutchison to have given him a “kiss”. She says it was no more than that but accepted that when the USA Swimming investigation into rumours swirling round Hutchison and Kukors was opened in 2011, she should have stepped aside from her duties on the case and divulged to investigators why she ought not to play a role in the investigative process.
The 2010 revelations from AP led lawyer Robert Allard to say: “I’ve always believed that USA Swimming was inept. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when I deposed Mr. Hogan, that I became convinced this organisation is corrupt to its leadership core.”
It is impossible to go back over every aspect and example of who knew what, when and what did they do about it, while the terms of an out-of-court settlement in place between Schubert and coach Dia C. Rianda – a whistleblower who complained about the behaviour of coach Bill Jewell when he was working as a volunteer stroke coach when Schubert was in charge of the Golden West program but was herself dismissed – prevent the parties from disclosing details of that case.
What can be said is that Jewell was handed a three-year suspension from USA Swimming in 2013, the year after the Rianda/Schubert settlement was reached but, SwimVortex understands, for reasons separate to that specific case but in some regards related in terms of the reasons for punishing Jewell, namely, that he made “sexually explicit comments toward athletes and other individuals affiliated with the club”.
In 2013, the clubs at which Jewell worked with Hutchison – the FAST program at Fullerton – and the club led by Schubert where Jewell worked as a volunteer stroke coach, were informed of the three-year ban on Jewell. In an email to the clubs, USA Swimming stated:
“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.”
Schubert says that he reported to USA Swimming in 2010 rumours that Hutchison was in a relationship with Kukors. At the time, the swimmer, a 2009 World champion and record holder in the 200m medley, was no longer a minor but Safe Sport awareness, though tardy, was taking off.
Schubert contacted Jewell and says that “I knew he would check out” the rumours against Hutchison. A meeting was held at Fullerton “between Sean and club officials and the conclusion was that Sean resigned”, Schubert recalls. It is believed that Hutchison admitted that he and Kukors were “close friends”. Kukors and Schubert have acknowledged that they lied to the 2011 USA Swimming ‘investigation’ when they were asked if they had had a sexual relationship. Kukors now alleges that Hutchison groomed her when she was a minor; Hutchison denies those allegations.
The investigation in 2011 led, this past month, to the resignation of the USA Swimming safe Sport boss on the same day Pat Hogan resigned form his position at the federation.
Kukors says that in 2011, the extent of her involvement in the ‘investigation’ was for a private eye to ask her in “a short phone call” a number of questions, including whether she had had sex with her coach.
Asked what he thought of the process described by Kukors, a “short call” to a young athlete who might have been under the control she now alleges and who might have been the victim of abuse, Schubert said: “Well, its clearly wrong and its clear, too that the process is going to have to change”. He added:
“There has to be a better way of dealing with it. The whole attitude of USA Swimming has too change. It was sometimes as if the supposed victim were not being listened to. They heard it but they took no action.”
Things had changed, Schubert believed, saying that the USA Swimming Safe Sport program that evolved out of the crisis of banned lists stretching to more than 100 individuals had meant that “coaches are educated to turn any type of rumour into the authorities”. He added:
“Today that is exactly what I would do. It is a huge change of attitude.”
Proper inquiry, such as law enforcement officers searching for evidence as they have done on visits to Hutchison’s home, was the way to go, Schubert believed. Asked if USA Swimming should also be a part of the reporting process, he replied:
“No – because I don’t trust that process.”
Trust has been eroded by the lack of response down the years to allegations of abuse, this Outside Feature highlighting many of pertinent and painful experiences and issues.
Of late, the new USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchley, has issued statements on Safe Sport, including a “Letter to Members” on the crisis facing the federation, and the implications of the new Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 signed into law in February 14, 2018 after a long campaign by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 100m freestyle champion turned lawyer and Safe Sport advocate on behalf of victims. Hinchley writes:
“We will not shy away from acknowledging or supporting survivors of abuse, and we will strive to ensure that there is never a lapse of a support system again. We will continue to work hand-in-hand with survivors, the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, and law enforcement to hold wrongdoers accountable and remove them from our organization.
While we disagree on several of the reported statements and many of the conclusions in recent media reports, members were failed, and we are doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again.”
Schubert described the “Letter to members” as “appropriate” but adds:
“Statements are different to actions. He promises needed change, he pledges to do that and I hope that change will be evident.”
Schubert stands accused by some advocates working with victims of not having done enough to have rogues removed, several cases down the years having attracted a high level of attention.
The case of coach Paul Bergen is one of them. Schubert says he had no knowledge of the abuse allegations against any of the high-profile coaches, such as Mitch Ivey, who ended up being banned by USA Swimming, until he worked at the federation. Curl and Bergen were the exceptions.
When Schubert left the Mission Bay program in 1988, Bergen was going to be hired but Deena Deardurff, the 1972 Olympic teamster, alleged that he had abused her in her youth. The club did not hire Bergen on that basis.
Deardurff’s story is well documented:
Deardurff’s story – including in this 2010 article in the Broward Palm Beach New Times in which Deardurff describes Bergen as “an excellent groomer” after she decided to speak out in support of victims of Andy King, a former coach handed a 40-year jail term after he pleaded no contest to 20 counts of molestation in 2010 – has been widely reported.
One of the aspects of experience that several victims have spoken about is the fact that not even successful prosecution ends the pain of what they endured, as the story of former Cal coach Kristien Cunnane, as told in the Mercury News at the weekend, highlights.
USA Swimming has a never added Bergen to its banned list, while he remains an honoured member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Coaches have been among those calling for his removal, while a call from Hogshead-Makar and others to keep Wielgus out of the Hall of Fame not only led to that being the case but prompted a pubic apology from the former CEO for not having done enough for victims of abuse within the sport.
Bergen, who denies wrongdoing, is not a member of USA Swimming and therefore cannot be banned, one argument goes. He has been and is, therefore, free to coach elsewhere in the world tab the elite end of a sport whose international federation FINA has no Safe-Sport Specific Code nor guidelines. That absence of a Code that would prevent a coach banned in one nation from continuing to work with children in another has been cited as a weakness at the heart of global governance: what need of an umbrella body if it provides no umbrella to cover critical issues of Safe Sport.
The sport has witnessed farcical moments in which a coach barred from his own nation’s swim team can be on the deck at a major global meet with the star of a foreign team … and FINA does nothing to prevent it and has no provision for doing so unless it refers the matter to its Ethics Panel for adjudication.
Asked if an amnesty for those who may have information helpful to any inquiry and/or Congressional hearing would help to bring people with information out of the woodwork, provided such things were not made available to those directly responsible for abuse, Schubert thought the idea could pay dividends, saying:
“A lot of this [crisis] has been propagated from people being afraid to say anything in case they get sued. People have been afraid to make any comments without a level of protection in place that allows them to feel free to speak up without the risk of legal action.”
The American Swimming Coaches Association this week sent a note to all its members reminding them of the core lessons of the USA Swimming Safe Sport program, including
“Never allow an athlete to be alone with an adult other than their parent.”
Even then, as the swim community and its leaders know at a time when trust has been deeply eroded, safety is not assured. The excruciating evidence against Larry Nassar, who abused more than 150 patients when acting as a doctor to USA gymnasts and was handed a jail term of 175 years in January, included details of a gymnast who was penetrated by him under a towel even when the young athlete’s mother was in the room, the moment one of such confusion and torment for the minor that she was too fearful to say what had happened to her.
During the investigation and prosecution of Nassar, a case that contributed to the resignation of Scott Blackmun as CEO of the United States Olympic Committee and sparked an inquiry and review of governance that looks set to lead to Congressional hearings, Olympic gym champion Aly Raisman noted that she had spent months urging the USOC and USA Gym to “get serious” and investigate the doctor – to no avail for far too long.
This week, Raisman filed a lawsuit against USOC in California, the state set to host the 2028 Olympic Games. The filing alleges negligence by the USOC and USA Gymnastics for failing to make sure appropriate protocols were followed that could have prevented Larry Nassar’s abuse. Nassar is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. He is already set to serve out the rest of his life in jail, for the abuse of gymnasts and for child pornography crimes.
Swimming has no Nassar but a catalogue of hundreds of banned coaches and others in the USA and several other key swimming nations dating back decades – some cases having led to prosecution, others to bans without prosecution – suggest that the sport has a journey ahead before it can move on with the lessons learned from a sorry past in tow.
The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – so far:
- significant developments in GB Masters
- the words of Olympic podium placer Michael Jamieson and considered their relevance to woeful culture at the heart of FINA and the poor response of national federations who show no inclination to use their potential power to change the game in the interests of athlete protection from various forms of abuse.
- the Larry Nassar abuse case, a story about much more than a doctor who traded the hippocratic oath for hypocrisy and criminality; a story that calls into question the usefulness of the Olympic Movement, the United States Olympic Committee and the role of USA Swimming when it comes to the protection of athletes.
- Climate Change: empowering coaches to ensure sport is a safe, healthy and enriching place for all, at whatever level: we recall 2014 lectures delivered by Prof. Joan Duda, of Empowering Coaching, at the World Aquatics Development Conference in Lund on a day of high relevance to current events; and by Dr. Fiona McLachlan, academic adviser to Shane Gould in the 1972 triple Olympic champion’s PHD studies, for the guardians of swimming youth to consider “How to be Good”.
- the relevance of Fran Crippen and his passing to events at the Winter Olympics.
- the death of Qing Wenyi
- World Coaches call for global swim community to press FINA on clean sport
- If Prohibition Must Sober The Olympics, Then Ban The Blazers Craving Nobel Prizes
- Time To Ban The Olympic Cold Shoulder To Truth, Whistleblowing & Red-Flag Waving
- I Ran Past The First Watchman … Does your silence indicate permission to pass?
- Why USA Swimming’s Leadership Must Face Full Inquiry Into Abuse Down The Years – The Orange Country register’s telling investigation
- Susan Woessner Resigns As USA Swimming Safe Sport Boss Admitting Hutchison Link
- Don Heidary, ASCA Board President, Writes Of ‘Real Culture of American Swimming’
- Athletes On USA Swimming Board: ‘Why Was Complacency Allowed To Take Hold?’
- ‘Knock. It. Down. & Burn The Remains’ – Time to Torch The Olympic Scam Of Us & Them
Questions sent out this week to pertinent parties:
- Questions For Coaches On Their Jobs, Athlete Welfare & The Role Of Blazers
- Questions For USA Swimming, USAS & Their Busy Safe Sport Unit
- Questions For Athletes Who Represent Athletes At The House Of FINA
- World Coaches: We Need Global Safe Sport Regime But USA Fear Of FINA Stands In Way
- Safe Sport: ASCA Boss Puts Parents On Line & Tells Coaches ‘be correct, beyond reproach’
From The Archive – 2015
Michael Phelps Knew Nothing Of Proposal To Have Him Promote FINA & Maglione
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has made it clear that he will not promote FINA and the ambitions of its president, Julio Maglione, to have the international federation’s constitution changed so that the 79-year-old Uruguayan can stand for a third term in office from 2017.
The notion of Phelps as a poster boy for the international federation leadership is raised in a proposed strategy designed to promote FINA and “discredit” critics in the four months leading up to a vote to change the FINA Constitution on the cusp of racing at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, from August 2.
The budget for the proposal and rolling it out would stretch to about US$150,000.
Maglione, a Uruguayan who turns 80 this year, is among those at the helm of FINA who want the federation’s constitution changed to allow him to stand for a third term in office from 2017. A member of the International Committee, an organisation that places an age cap of 80 on members (70 for any joining after 1999), came to the presidency of the swimming federation on a campaign ticket of “two-terms only” in 2009.
In the proposal, seen by SwimVortex.com, JTA Associates, a sports consultancy firm based in Tunbridge Wells in England, cites American ace Phelps as one of the central figures of a “Tactical Programme” designed to promote FINA and “discredit” critics.
Phelps, however, knows nothing about the strategy, according to a representative of the winner of 18 Olympic gold medals in 22 podium visits.
SwimVortex asked FINA yesterday to confirm whether it has accepted any such strategy, among other questions put to the federation. No response has been received. A call to the headquarters of the Lausanne-based organisation this morning was cut off. A second call resulted in a receptionist informing SwimVortex that the head of communications, Pedro Adrega, was in a meeting and unavailable. It was a busy day in the office, including releases on a new penalty for Ba Zhen, Sun Yang‘s doctor, and the announcement that the World Cup is going long-course this year.
Meantime, one of the central aims of the proposal is to “Actively promote FINA’s success across key publications in the USA and UK as a syndicated op-ed from Michael Phelps, highlighting the incredible progress that has been made by FINA (including London 2012) over the last 5-6 years.”
The proposal adds: “In this op-ed, Michael Phelps openly supports President Maglione’s desire to stand for a third term. This op-ed would then be supported by a wide range of social media activities with supporters tweeting and adding support across other social media platforms.”
It appears that any such proposal was never going to become a reality, no-one having approached the Olympic great on the matter. A member of the Phelps entourage told SwimVortex:
“Neither Michael … nor anyone in our team know anything about this. He has no intention of writing anything. We know absolutely nothing about any of this.”
Other public figures cited in the proposal as people who could help to promote FINA and counter criticism levelled at the federation’s leadership include Sir Craig Reedie, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency and and IOC vice-president, and Chuck Wielgus, the chief executive officer of USA Swimming. NBC, the Olympic broadcaster, would be approached, the strategy proposes, to grant Maglione, who is also head of the Uruguayan Olympic Committee and the Pan American Sports Organisation, a chance to answer critics.
SwimVortex has asked FINA to clarify whether those cited in the document had been made aware of the roles proposed for them.
It is suggested that “a key publication (e.g. Swimming World)” might run an article with “an influential figure like Craig Reedie who is broadly in support of the steps that FINA is taking to counter doping allegations.” The aim would be to show FINA “as an example of good practice”.
The proposal cites Sir Craig at a time when an independent inquiry, led by another IOC member, Dick Pound, at the behest of WADA is underway into allegations of systematic doping in Russia aired in documentaries broadcast by ARD in Germany.
Brent Rutemiller, the publisher of Swimming World, one of the publications cited in the proposal to FINA, told SwimVortex: “Swimming World would be happy to publish any article that demonstrates FINA’s success against doping. However, such an article does not exist simply because there is no record of real success by FINA. We have not been contacted to be a part of this covert plan. In fact, FINA rarely responds to our requests concerning current and past doping issues. Any plan to create a marketing and public relations campaign to win public support is a misuse of FINA’s time, resources and funds.”
At the heart of those calling FINA to account is John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association and the American Swimming Coaches Association, accounting for more than 20,000 members worldwide, most affiliated to FINA through their domestic federations.
After the FINA leadership’s awarding of its highest honour, the FINA Order, to Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, was described in the German Bundestag as a “tasteless provocation”, WSCA issued a statement calling the award “wildly inappropriate … insulting and dismissive or all those who have fought for doping free sport inside Russia and around the globe” at a time when Russia has the worst doping record in the sport.
Among topics at the heart of schism in swimming beyond the award to Putin is the FINA leadership’s decision to return its open water marathon world series to the United Arab Emirates just four years after the death of American Fran Crippen there in circumstances criticised by two independent reports. The return to the UAE sparked a boycott of the event by the United States national Open Water team in action led by swimmers and condoned by USA Swimming.
In its “Overall Strategic Approach”, the proposal to FINA notes that “The particular focus should be on demonstrating solidarity with USA Swimming and the general swimming community (through joint media events with Michael Phelps, Chuck Wielgus etc) and showing that John Leonard does not speak for the USA as a whole.”
According to documents seen by SwimVortex, the FINA director, Cornel Marculescu, the head of communications for the federation Pedro Adrega, and Francois Carrard, the Swiss lawyer regularly consulted in Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) anti-doping cases and a former director of the IOC, met JTA on March 27, to discuss how to handle the criticism levelled at the FINA leadership.
Listed in the proposal among “principle lines of attack” on the international federations are:
- “Overall governance of the sport with President Maglione seeking to stand for a third term of office having committed to two terms”
- “The close relationship between FINA and Russia – in particular giving a high-level award to Putin”
- “FINA’s perceived lack of action on doping challenges in the sport”
The proposal that followed includes a recommendation to: “Select a wide group of trusted swimming athletes to discredit on social media the newsletters and articles written by John Leonard, allowing them to refute the allegations and state their own personal opinion of them. In this way, a viral attack would be created on the credibility of John Leonard.”
Leonard told SwimVortex that he was aware of the proposal doing the rounds in USA swimming circles. He described the idea of discrediting him as “laughable”. He added: “This speaks to going after people personally instead of challenging and addressing ideas. Is this a reasonable way to use FINA funds? I leave people to make their own minds up on that.”
On who he represents, Leonard says that he speaks “for myself and my Board of Directors and by extension, American Coaches, from whom we have encountered ZERO resistance” to calling FINA’s leadership to account.
On the notion that he is biased he said: “We coaches are clearly biased … to be ‘unbiased’ is to be without a position, no? We are also accurate to my knowledge. We have lied about nothing. We point out obvious and factual discrepancies between FINA actions and FINA words.”
Among issues in focus is FINA’s tardy response to media questions on doping issues. The federation took three months to answer the question ‘when did you first know that Sun Yang had tested positive’ for doping after the Chinese Olympic champion served a three-month suspension in secret last year. The precise date on which FINA was informed of the Sun Yang case has not been divulged.
Coaches have also been at loggerheads with FINA over the status of facilities rules designed to ensure athlete health and safety, the international federation having stated that they are not applicable when a world record is established even though the World record Application Form requires the referee to confirm that “All FINA Rules” have been complied with.
Leading athletes have joined coaches and others in criticism of FINA on another topic making headlines: the international federation did not stand up against a plan to hold midnight swimming finals at the Olympic Games in Rio next year to suit the American broadcaster NBC.
WSCA, along with its national peer groups, the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) and the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association backed an olive-branch proposal penned in early March by veteran coach Bill Sweetenham for FINA to end schism by submitting to independent review of its management, operations, structures and finances. Sweetenham’s appeal to FINA noted:
“The corporate world, the armed forces and the sporting world have learnt that continual evolution and a requirement for improvement, visionary leadership and change is tied to constant evaluation. Audits, reviews and performance analyses all play a part in designing strategies and success for their future and hopefully successful operation.”
Leonard noted that USA Swimming holds reviews on a regular basis with a view to self-improvement. FINA was asked to respond to the call for independent review by mid-April. There has been no formal response.