Entertainment

An Olympic Coach Charged with Sexual Abuse Never Faced Trial. Then, He Vanished.

A new podcast, from Second Captains and BBC Sounds, sensitively and deftly follows the trail of George Gibney, a notorious former swimming coach.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
September 10, 2020, 1:16pm
Who Is George Gibney?
Image via Second Captains

TW: this article contains discussion of sexual abuse.

In the mid-1990s, a story broke in Irish newspapers. George Gibney, an elite swimming coach, and one of the country’s most powerful and recognisable sporting figures, had faced charges of child sexual abuse, but was never tried. Soon after the details of the case made the news, Gibney disappeared.

Gibney’s story is one that has floated in and out of the Irish national consciousness over the decades, with various documentaries and articles, and even one book, covering it. But while these each brought the case to renewed media prominence for a time, it needed international interest to make it stick – not least because Gibney had fled Ireland.

In 2018, such interest arose. Sexual abuse in sport faced a global reckoning, as British football coach Barry Bennell and US gymnastics physician Larry Nassar were both publicly accused and ultimately convicted of sex crimes against children in their care. One journalist covering these events was Mark Horgan, a co-founder of the Irish media production company Second Captains, as well as the popular podcast of the same name. The Bennell and Nassar cases put Horgan in mind of George Gibney – a name he’d known since childhood – once more, so he decided to look into it for himself.

Two years down the line, Horgan and Second Captains have emerged with Where Is George Gibney?, a podcast series produced in partnership with BBC Sounds. Over ten episodes (the third is released today), the series explores the Gibney story in great detail – from the 1960s to the present day, from Ireland to the US, via the UK – piecing together interviews with those who knew Gibney, as well as survivors, who are given space to discuss their experiences firsthand. What follows is an arresting listen that subverts salacious “true crime” tropes, and has been described as a “new benchmark” for Irish podcasting.

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I recently spoke to Horgan about Where Is George Gibney?, why podcasting was the medium he wanted to use in order to tell this decades-long story, and how it feels to finally track down the subject of your investigation. This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Where Is George Gibney VICE

Image via BBC Sounds

VICE: Hi Mark. How did you come to this story and how long have you been following it?
Mark Horgan: I came to the story first of all at the end of 2017. It was when the Larry Nassar stuff started becoming more prominent, and our podcast Second Captains started covering that story in January, 2018, and then we did Barry Bennell. Around that time, the story of George Gibney popped into my head, because I remembered it vaguely. We’d covered it years ago – back in 2005, or something – but when I looked it up I’d actually misremembered a lot of the elements. I thought Gibney had served jail time, and he hadn’t. On top of that, there’s also connections in UK swimming: a swimming coach called Paul Hickson, and someone else in UK swimming called Mike Drew, who were also convicted.

As I looked into it more, there were so many different components to this story that made it international, and it tied into the plight that Larry Nassar’s survivors went through. What these women and men went through in the 60s, 70s and 80s – it still exists for athletes who might be on the cusp of making a breakthrough, and I thought that was really interesting.

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Can you give a sense of how well known George Gibney was to the Irish public before the charges were brought against him?
I was a kid during the 80s and early 90s, and that was when he was at his most famous in Ireland. He was somebody that transcended sport. Sport became big in Ireland around Italia 90, the World Cup, and Ireland started doing some things on an international stage. But up to that point, we weren’t really achieving anything. So when you had this coach who was really interested in the science of sport, and started getting results in swimming, which Ireland had no history in, he started getting noticed and talked about.

Not only did he transcend sport into, like, TV chat shows, but he also was on government boards. He had connections with politicians. He was assigned funding to give to other sports people outside of swimming. He was a really trusted figure, he was really well known and popular. And he had a tan, and he’d always have the coolest gear coming back from Florida, or wherever he was in the States – people would think he’d look good.

The really phenomenal aspect of it all, however, was that when the charges against Gibney came out, nobody knew about it because of the legal system in Ireland. He was referred to as “a senior sporting figure” in the press. In December, 1994, a writer called Johnny Waterson – who used to go to school where Gibney was the swimming teacher, as he got older – became one of the main journalists in Ireland, working for the Sunday Tribune. And even though Gibney hadn’t been convicted – he’d actually gone through the court system and he hadn’t been convicted – Waterson and his editor decided that they were going to try and write the story. And then it exploded in the Irish consciousness from there.

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Why did you decide that the podcast medium was the way to tell this story?
I’m a fan of podcasts like S-Town, and particularly the craft of that, and the soundscape, and the storytelling is amazing. I always wanted to try and figure out how our company could do something like that. I found all of this incredible archive footage of Gibney, and the sounds of his voice poolside, because he used to be one of those celebrity TV swimming instructors. So you could hear his voice, and the splashing of the water, and you could hear kids’ voices as well, the echo of it. And it was so vast and haunting. Those components sounded so impactful from an audio perspective.

Aside from that, I knew I was going to have to have really difficult conversations with people who might not want to talk, and I honestly didn’t know if it was the right thing for them. But I did think that if you were to have these conversations that the best way – and the most real way – to have them is just one person in a room with a mic, and no cameras, nothing else. And to do it on their terms, in depth, so you can hear their stories properly. I wanted to do something that would mean we could tell the story in depth, that the people could be heard and they wouldn’t just be a soundbite.

Having the survivors speak on the podcast is very affecting, because their words, voices and accounts are all listeners have to pay attention to. How important was it for you that survivors told their stories in their own words?
The whole project couldn’t have got going at all if it wasn’t for the survivors. In the past few weeks [since the podcast was first released] I’ve seen Tric [Kearney, a survivor of Gibney’s abuse, who is interviewed on the podcast] and Ber [Carley, another survivor and interviewee] tweeting quite a lot, and I felt really proud about that, because it feels so different to their experience in the 90s, when people weren’t believed. There were always question marks. The instinct for a huge amount of society was to trust the famous person, the swimmer, the Olympic coach. One of the elements that I hope comes from this is that people who are affected in whatever capacity by sexual abuse, historic or otherwise, recognise that society is a kinder place, and that they are more believed now. And that doesn’t mean that people have to come forward or go to police or journalists – they should do what’s right for them – but just that there’s a sense that there is solidarity here, and it’s not something they’re alone on.

The way we wanted to put the episodes that feature the survivors together was that I didn’t want our voice to be dominating it at all. I wanted us to shut up and to let them speak, and for them to be given time. Because I can’t put what they went through into words correctly, and I’m not comfortable speaking for them at all, particularly when they can speak so incredibly eloquently for themselves. They blew me away when I spoke to them.

Obviously, true crime podcasts are wildly popular. Do you think there are any ethical implications regarding this popularity, and how did you try to work against or around those while making this series?
I know this podcast will be put under the title of “true crime”, and I know that probably because of the huge popularity of true crime we’ll benefit from some more listens. And that’s all good, because I want as many ears listening to this as possible. But it’s true life, it’s real life. “True crime”, a lot of the time, signifies something like it’s some kind of TV show, or fictionalised in some way. Children were raped in this case. People are still alive, and people still haven’t got any justice. And the people that were affected by this case are listening to this podcast. There’s a lot of really deep emotions. I’m very conscious of this not just being seen as something where people don’t understand that it’s real life happening now.

I have listened to lots of those podcasts in the past, but over the production of this podcast I didn’t want to be swayed by elements that I might hear. There are excellent ones, like In the Dark, and really important ones, like Serial is beyond-belief good, of course – I’ve heard lots of them. But I’ve also heard the craft of some podcast makers in Ireland. We’ve a real history of radio and audio documentary making, particularly the Doc on One, on RTÉ Radio. I felt that when we have such a background in that – and as a nation, we’re not bad at storytelling – there was an opportunity for us, based out of Dublin and with a background in podcasting, to really bring these to a high international quality. I was much more influenced by those individual documentaries than I was by “true crime” podcasts

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It’s not much of a spoiler to note that you did eventually find Gibney, as this is something you note in the first episode. How did you feel, having spoken to so many of the people he’d hurt?
Honestly the first emotion was relief, because we’d spent a long time understanding where he was before we even got to the States. The information we had looked like it could be correct, and then I was able to follow him and do all of these things I’d never experienced before in my life. I think that might come across as well! I’m not a hardened investigative journalist – this isn’t my background. I think it’s quite a real actual journey that you’re going on in that car with us. You can hear that we’re tense and nervous, and that feeling was all absolutely real.

When I did go to that supermarket and see him, and see him walk past me, it was a relief, because I knew we could actually get to work. It’s never about putting a mic in front of this guy’s faceecause that doesn’t make any difference. The difference is understanding what he does today. Is he working? Does he have access to children now? How is he representing himself in the community, and who is protecting him? Once I was able to identify him, I knew we had a chance to get this work done. And that was more important to me than any mic in the face.

What is your hope for this podcast? What were your reasons for wanting to bring this story back to people’s attention, and what do you want the show to achieve?
What I was hoping to achieve was for the stories of the survivors to be told to the biggest audience possible. What George Gibney would want is for this whole thing to be forgotten about, and this series will make sure that that doesn’t happen. In fact, he’s going to be more known now than he ever was, but this time he’s going to be known internationally, and in the United States. His case needs to be highlighted, because cases of manipulation and abuse of young athletes still continues, and people need to be conscious and aware of people who are in positions of power like that.

There’s this thing called the “age of imminent achievement”, where kids are at the cusp of a breakthrough and they and their families are so focussed on it that they become so vulnerable at that point. They’re being dealt with by individuals who can get them to the Olympics, or can get them to the Premier League, whatever it might be. And people just need to be conscious and aware of that. That’s always been the main aspect for me. To tell the story, rather than give listeners an idea of a “case” – though I absolutely want him to face justice.

Where Is George Gibney is available now on BBC Sounds.