The Final Strike Out... Maybe


Karin Helmstaedt

When the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, wrapped up proceedings on May 4, things did not look good for Michelle Smith de Bruin.

After two days of hearings during which Ireland's most controversial sport heroine appealed against FINA's four-year ban for sample manipulation, some damning information surfaced that may spell the end of de Bruin's career, even if the CAS were to give her an acquittal. A FINA Doping Panel banned Smith de Bruin in August 1998 for having put alcohol-most likely whiskey-into a urine sample given to unannounced testers in her home in Kilkenny County on January 10, 1998. According to FINA rules, the manipulation of a test constitutes a doping infraction on par with a positive test.

It is the first such case in swimming. Smith de Bruin, 29, has stoically maintained that she is innocent and that any manipulation must have taken place after the sample was out of her sight. Her lawyer, Peter Lennon, tried valiantly in Lausanne to find fault with the testers, with their testing procedure, with the Versapak cannisters, and with FINA rules. He and his client have insisted all along that someone is out to get Smith de Bruin, and that she was a victim of sabotage.

But then FINA's lawyer, Jean Pierre Morand, embarked on his cross-examination of Dr. Jordi Segura, the head of the IOC-accredited laboratory in Barcelona that analyzed Smith de Bruin's fateful January 1998 sample. During questioning, the doctor revealed that Smith de Bruin's sample had indeed contained a banned substance, androstenedione. To backtrack: after news of her manipulated sample came out in April 1998, Smith de Bruin called a press conference in Dublin, during which she herself mentioned FINA's reported findings of a testosterone precursor. It was, at the time, unidentified. Only months later, androstenedione became famous when American baseball star Mark McGwire admitted that it helped him to his unbelievable home-run season record. Although banned by the IOC, the steroid-like substance is not banned by baseball's governing body. Dr. Segura confirmed the presence of "andro," as it's known, in Smith de Bruin's urine in a later test: a new type of urine analysis called isotope ratio mass spectrometry (used at the winter Olympics in Nagano) was able to detect it. It turns out that three of Smith de Bruin's samples from November 1997 to March 1998 showed evidence of the same substance. Smith de Bruin's case was further weakened when an independent team of forensic experts commissioned by the CAS found no evidence of tampering on the cannisters containing her sample.

It would appear that, although Smith de Bruin is not accused of having a positive test, the presence of androstenedione in her urine constitutes a viable motive for manipulating the sample. The three-man judging panel-lawyers Yves Fortier (CAN), Denis Oswald (SUI), and Michael Beloff (ENG)-have until the end of May to reach a verdict. It remains to be seen, but the final chapter in a saga that has dogged international swimming, and Irish sport, for three years may soon be written.