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1997 European Swimming Championships

Controversy Swirled Around German Team Who Still Emerged On Top

Agnes Kovacs Impressive with 2:24.90 European Record For 200 Breast
Popov, Brembilla, Wouda Men's World Leaders


Karin Helmstaedt

The heat was sweltering, only made hotter by the burning issues that surrounded the competition in Sevilla. And after an impressive Pan Pacific meet in Japan, it was up to the European contingent to follow the act. Television made fast performances difficult, as live coverage necessitated finals to be run earlier than usual. B finals were held first at 4:15 p.m., followed by the A finals at 4:45 p.m. With 46°C (110 F) heat in mid-afternoon, it was like living in a furnace.

Capacity crowds in Sevilla for most finals
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

It was no doubt the most difficult European Championships ever for the German team. Dogged by ever more damning revelations over the East German doping system, officials under fire talked in ineffective circles while coaches and swimmers tried to ignore the media attention that had started already days before, during their training camp in Granada. Upon their arrival in Sevilla, butterflyer Chris-Carol Bremer, the swimmers' team captain, told the German press that athletes would answer no questions about doping or events related to the Berlin investigations.

In addition to the news that two of the German coaches were known to have been informal collaborators with the State Police, or Stasi, the names of the ten coaches to be formally indicted in Berlin this fall were also made public. But attempts to avoid the issue, the standard tactic, were just no longer acceptable.

Consequently, the increasingly scandalous revelations made for conflicts within the German media. An article in Der Spiegel pointed yet again to six-time Olympic gold medallist Kristin Otto, whose name appears many times in the Berlin doping files as having tested positive for testosterone. In Sevilla as a commentator for ZDF Television, Otto found herself in a particularly difficult position as rival station ARD delved into the story, while she refused to even address the issue during her broadcasts. Otto stated that she, like many others, felt that she was being threatened. A spokesman for the Criminal Police involved in the Berlin investigations assured, however, that "we are not after their medals."

And then there was Irish phenom Michelle Smith, entered for the first time under her married name de Bruin, who announced in early August that she would actually compete in the Championships. Questions were raised even before she arrived however, as the infamous couple seem to consider themselves exempt from the rules.

Smith de Bruin arrived in Sevilla to swim six events. Her husband, Erik de Bruin, got through his apology to the LEN bureau for his behaviour in Vienna in 1995 (where he forged his accreditation), and was granted a pass as her coach.

It turned out, however, that her entry times (for all events except the 200 fly) were not acceptable because they had not been done in a 50-metre pool within the last year. Whoops. She found herself, therefore, entered with no time in the first heat. All the questions about how little competing she does all year made a little sense.

In addition, an attempted late entry into the 100 butterfly, for a seventh event, was denied her by the European Swimming League (LEN). Honorary Secretary Harm Beyer's comment was that "we have to treat everyone the same way." The entry form, which was dated August 7 and arrived on August 8 or 9, was over the required deadline of ten days prior to the start of the Championships.

As was to be expected, after her first gold medal Smith de Bruin failed to show up at the press conference, an obligation for all medallists according to Beyer. LEN issued her a warning, which she denied receiving, brushing it off as a "misunderstanding" because time had dragged on and she only had five minutes to get to doping control after the medal ceremony. And on it went.

Host Spain had much to cheer, with veteran backstroker Martin Lopez-Zubero winning his fourth Eurpean 100 backstroke gold, in his last competition in front of his countrymen; Frederic Hviid, winning the silver in the 400 I.M. and on the last day of the championships, Maria Pelaez, in a stunning performance, won the women's 200 butterfly.

The emergence of Italy's Emiliano Brembilla as the world leader in the men's 400 and 1500 freestyle was the highlight of the men's swimming.

Finally, it was the occasion for the return of Russian Alex Popov, who came through like a master to successfully defend his titles in the 50 and the 100 freestyle. He went a step further and set a Championship record on the lead-off leg of the 400 freestyle relay. Many of his teammates, including world record holder Denis Pankratov, were "overtired" or "not ready," but the sprint Tsar with the Aussie accent will be a force to reckon with in Perth and beyond.

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