Ireland's controversial swimming star Michelle Smith-de Bruin is facing a humiliating end to her career after having been banned from all national and international competition for a period of four years. The triple Olympic gold medallist was found guilty of having manipulated a urine sample given to unannounced testers in her home in Kilkenny County on January 10, 1998. After an initial hearing last month failed to reach a decision on her case, the FINA Doping Panel released its decision on August 6. FINA rules treat manipulation of a test the same way as a positive test. It is the first such case in swimming.
Smith-de Bruin, 28, maintains that she is innocent and that any manipulation must have taken place after the sample was out of her sight. The IOC Accredited Laboratory in Barcelona that analyzed Smith-de Bruin's urine reported that the sample showed "unequivocal signs of adulteration" and an alcohol level that was "in no way compatible with human consumption." The analysis of the B-sample, performed on May 21, 1998, showed the same results.
The three-man Doping Panel, headed by German Judge Harm Beyer, found that the urine was indeed manipulated, but ruled out that it had been manipulated by the testers, by the laboratory, or during transport. The conclusion was that Smith-de Bruin manipulated the sample herself, constituting a doping offence according to FINA Rules DC 1.2.b and DC 3.1.b. "Why would one manipulate a sample? Only to cover something up," said Beyer.
In the weeks before the decision, the swimmer and her lawyer, Peter Lennon, had indicated that they would appeal any negative findings of the Panel at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. After the decision, Lennon went on the offensive; he called FINA's verdict "bizarre," saying that the Panel had failed to produce a single piece of evidence supporting the alleged manipulation. He then announced that he would lodge an official protest and seek compensation for damages to his client's reputation. Smith-de Bruin herself said she was "deeply hurt" by FINA's decision. She claimed FINA wanted to prevent her from competitng for Ireland again in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
The decision, labelled a "tragedy" by Smith-de Bruin's supporters in Ireland, was greeted as a landmark in international swimming circles. Smith-de Bruin's career has been dogged by suspicion ever since her unprecedented success at the 1996 Olympics. Since then, she has several times been unavailable for unannounced testers, and she and her husband/coach, former discus thrower Erik de Bruin from Holland, have done their best to thwart any efforts by the media to learn more about their coveted training methods.
In the meantime, The Irish Independent reported that Erik de Bruin has been dropped as an athletics commentator by the Dutch Public Broadcasting Corporation (NOS). Based on the drug test scandal surrounding his wife, the NOS decided that Erik de Bruin's "integrity was at stake" and that it would not be appropriate to include him in their coverage of the European Athletic Championships this month in Budapest. De Bruin was himself suspended for four years by the International Amateur Athletics Federation in 1993 for having tested positive for testosterone.