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Whiskey In the Jar: 10-Year Special Reserve

Jan 10, 2008  - Craig Lord

Some anniversaries are worthy of tickertape parades of the homecoming variety that Michelle Smith de Bruin was treated to in 1996. There was no repeat performance when the 10th year of remembering three gold medals in Atlanta came round. Never mind. Here's another to raise a glass to instead: January 10, 1998, an amazing day in the anti-doping war.

Within hours of ASDA (as the Australian anti-doping authority was called then) officials knocking (for a second time) at the door of the Beatty Park Hotel in Perth, temporary home to coach Zhou Ming's team of diuretic-devotees from China, on a balmy southern summer day, Al and Kay Guy wrapped at the door of Michelle Smith de Bruin's home in Kilkenny, Ireland.

The urine supplied that day would bring down the House of Ming and the House of de Bruin. China, on the back of the human growth hormone found in Wu Yanyan's kit bag at Sydney Airport and tests taken as part of the biggest and most expensive one-off out-of-competition doping control exercise in swimming history, was confirmed as the pariah of world swimming there and then at the world championships in Perth. Smith's fall from grace would take a little longer.

Sometime in April that year, I received a handful of Shakespearean quotes from a medical contact of mine topped by the line 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'. By late April, I had worked out where the stench was coming from and the paperwork was on the way to confirm the ruination of a triple Olympic champion. The Sports Editor of The Times in London handed his office over to me for one of those rare occasions when swimming demands the biggest headline of the day. I left a message on Smith de Bruin's answer phone. Half an hour later, the phone rang in the Sport's Editor's office. The swimmer's solicitor, Peter Lennon, demanded to know whether I 'had ever heard of a case in which ... ' Over the next 15 minutes, Smith de Bruin's legal eagle revealed a great deal and The Times broke the news to the world on April 29.

That day, Lennon and Smith de Bruin called a press conference at which the swimmer said that she was being accused of using a banned substance, described as a derivative of testosterone. In fact, FINA's lawyers intended no such thing. While the sample from January 10 did indeed contain evidence of a banned substance, according to her lawyer, as it turned out, the safer route to removing the Irish champion from the sport was the rule barring manipulation of a drug-test sample: the urine contained enough alcohol in it to have killed the swimmer had she ingested the amount necessary to produce the trace level present in her waste product.

Smith de Bruin declared herself ready to fight all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. And so she did - and lost. A four year ban, later reduced to two, marked the end of her career but it was none other than Lennon, her own solicitor, who hammered the final nail in the coffin. The CAS hearing, a serious and sombre moment in a small room that accommodated a gathering of media (this author included) whose presence had been agreed by the court, included (in voice and minute) a revelation that no-one was supposed to hear: 'andro' had also been found in the urine that was supposed to have been spoiled by the alcohol.

The word fell from Lennon's mouth when he assumed the lawyer from FINA was about to let the substance out of the bag. The courtroom reference made dozens of newspapers (I have several cuttings in front of me while media database searches show a much wider ripple that placed the incident in the public domain back in the late 1990s) yet neither FINA nor Smith de Bruin (both for what may well be understandable reasons) have ever discussed publicly the nature of any discussion and agreement ('agreed' is the precise word used by Lennon in Lausanne) between the opposing parties in the CAS case that followed events in January 1998. The swimmer was suspended for manipulation not for any substance that she may or may not have taken.

The rest is history as far as Ireland's most famous and infamous swimmer is concerned but the wider story did not end there. Smith de Bruin trained and graduated in law, and then, for some reason best known to herself, agreed to take part in a reality TV show in Ireland in October 2007.

The mother of two children fathered by Erik de Bruin, the former thrower who was banned for four years by the IAAF after failing an anti-doping test, spoke in a flood of tears to another contestant about the hurt her past might cause to her children.

The other guest had suggested that the former swimmer simply shrug off the 'harsh' questioning she had received on the Late Late TV talk show over her brush with anti-doping laws. But Smith de Bruin could take the pressure no longer and the tears flowed, according to the fellow contestant, who told the Irish Independent: 'I put my arm around her and said, coming from someone who gets abused on a daily basis, you need to say to yourself, 'I know who I am. This doesn't faze me'. But she said, '... it's more than that. I have two children. They need to go to school and out and about every day'.'

Difficult for the De Bruin's to turn the clock back on their sorry history of suspensions and make it alright for their future children. Impossible to now stop the questions, especially if you appear on a Reality TV show. Perhaps the De Bruin's children are still too young to fully appreciate why their parents became pariahs in some circles. Perhaps Erik and Michelle will one day find the courage to tell their children the entire story of how and why as athletes they both fell from grace.

Smith de Bruin has long maintained her innocence in the face of the disgrace imposed by the verdicts against her. Just how she hopes to put that shameful part of her sporting history behind her by appearing on a reality TV show is hard to fathom. Every time the former swimmer appears in public, the public will recall at least two things: she won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze in 1996 after a trajectory of progress late in her career that was and is an aberration; she was suspended after a 1998 anti-doping test. The public too will recall a couple of things about Erik: he was a thrower for Holland; he was suspended for cheating.

Make what you will of what he told De Volkskant newspaper in Holland in 1993: "Who says doping is unethical? Who decides what is ethical? Sport is by definition dishonest. Some people are naturally gifted; others have to work hard. Some people are not going to make it without extra help." 

And there's the rub. To cheat or not to cheat, that is the question. And there should only be one answer in the opinion of those who believe in the principal of clean sport and abhor the freak show that sport has been on far too many occasions in history.

Meantime, the facts, regardless of opinions and arguments for or against, of the Smith de Bruin case are facts that the De Bruin children will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

A version of this article appears in the latest edition of SwimNews magazine alongside articles and features that only appear in the print edition.