Had she tried, Michelle Smith could not have made more waves at the Olympic
The 26-year-old swimmer from Ireland was the centre of controversy from
the moment she won her first-and Ireland's first-gold medal, in the 400
individual medley on July 20. Following her win Smith was questioned at
length about her rapid improvement at such a late age (a three-time Olympian,
Smith had never placed better than 17 th at an Olympic Games), and the air
at the Aquatic Centre was rife with suspicion.
Smith was calm and well-spoken during press conferences, explaining her
performance as "the culmination of three and a half years of work.
I've been building and building up to this and I only started to see the
results in January of last year when I won the World Cup...obviously this
is the highlight."
The three and a half years coincided with her meeting Erik de Bruin, the
Dutch shot and discus record-holder in 1993. Smith left Ireland and went
to Holland to train in Hardinxveld (near Rotterdam) with de Bruin, and the
two were married three months before the Olympics.
Coming from a track and field perspective, de Bruin claims that he changed
Smith's training to resemble an athlete's training: more rest, more power,
and more speed work. He also put her on a high protein diet, which has made
her significantly leaner and more muscular.
"Everybody who comes to the Olympic Games has trained hard, but I also
think that I train smart," said Smith. "A lot of that is because
of my husband's background in track and field. He's come into a new sport
and in three years has managed to produce an Olympic gold medal and I think
that's a great accomplishment for him."
The fact that de Bruin is currently serving a four-year ban for a positive
drug test didn't add credence to Smith's statements. In what was a first-rate
example of guilt by association, the circumstances surrounding her rise
to the top only fanned the flames of speculation.
All hell broke loose, however, when it was announced that Smith would be
allowed to swim the 400 freestyle, an event for which she had qualified
on July 7 at a meet during her training camp in Fort Lauderdale. Technically,
the deadline for an Olympic entry was July 5, and according to FINA rules
she could not swim the event. But Smith had posted the fastest time in the
world (4:08.64) and she claimed that the Olympic Council of Ireland had
been given the wrong deadline date. An IOC arbitration panel overruled FINA's
decision and at the last minute Smith's name went onto the heat sheet, much
to the disgust of many coaches and swimmers.
The U.S., together with Germany and the Netherlands, lodged a formal protest,
but to no avail. Coaches complained that rules are rules, and that FINA
did not support their position. Smith criticized protestors for their lack
of "spirit of fair play."
She then went on to swim the 400 freestyle preliminaries, knocking U.S.
veteran Janet Evans out of the final. Later in a press conference, Evans
was asked about the possibility of Smith's using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I think anytime a person in any country has a dramatic improvement,
there is that question," she said.
Long Course progression
LCM96 95 94 93 92 91
at Olympics In-season
50 FREESTYLE - - 26.20 - - - -
100 FREESTYLE - - 57.86 - - - -
200 FREESTYLE - 2:00.71 2:05.16 - - -
400 FREESTYLE 4:07.25 4:08.64 - - - - -
100 BACKSTROKE - - 1:05.56 - - - -
200 BACKSTROKE - 2:17.93 - - 2:20.29 - 2:18.93
100 BUTTERFLY - 1:02.15 1:00.59 1:02.10 - -
200 BUTTERFLY 2:09.91 2:14.68 2:11.60 2:12.79 - - -
200 IND.MEDLEY 2:13.93 2:17.60 2:15.27 2:19.48 - 2:23.83 -
400 IND.MEDLEY 4:39.18 4:52.45 4:42.81 4:47.89 4:57.17 4:58.94 4:56.52
Smith's reaction was to win the gold medal again that evening-her second
of the meet-in a time of 4:07.25. When asked if she was surprised at all
the rumours circulating about her, she said, "Maybe disappointed is
the word I would use, because I've worked very, very hard for this and put
my heart and soul into it for the last 3 1/2 years. I quit university to
train, I've trained 6 days a week, 6 hours a day. All I do is eat and eat
When asked if all the controversy was affecting her she said, "No,
not really. I'm a fighter so when people put obstacles in my way, it just
makes me more determined. I think it helped me."
She also pointed out that Evans' insinuations were out of line-Evans swam
to a gold medal in the 400 freestyle in Seoul in the world record time of
4:03.85. She swam much faster than Smith, and yet Evans maintains she was
drug-free. Smith postulated that if she herself were on drugs, surely she
should be swimming faster than a 4:07.
|BIRTHDATE || 16 DEC 1969 |
|PLACE|| Dublin, IRL |
|HEIGHT || 5 ft. 4 in. / 162 cm|
|WEIGHT || 128 lbs / 58 kg |
|| Hardinxveld,NED |
|REPRESENTS || The Kings Hospital |
|COACH|| Erik de Bruin (husband) |
| 96 Olympics 1st 400 free 4:07.25, 1st 400 IM 4:39.18 |
| 96 Olympics 1st 200 IM 2:13.93, 3rd 200 fly 2:09.91 |
95 Europeans 1st 200 fly 2:11.60, 1st 200 IM 2:15.27 |
| 95 Europeans 2nd 400 IM 4:42.81 |
94 Worlds 5th 200 fly 2:12.79, 9th 400 IM 4:47.89 |
While that shut up the relentless reporters at the press conference, no
one thought to mention that Evans was 16 years old when she swam her 4:03.
Now 24, she was hard pressed to make the finals, and was a long way from
her best times. Smith is 26 and improving at an alarming rate (she swam
national records in every event), which is highly unusual in the longer
events. According to coaches, that kind of breakthrough is unprecedented.
There are other holes in Smith's straight-faced defense. She claims she
has been tested for drugs more times than she can remember and yet FINA
has no evidence to support that claim. Who has done the testing and where,
no one seems to know. It is even rumoured that every time FINA calls up
the Irish Federation to pin-point Smith's whereabouts, by the time testers
arrive Smith has disappeared.
Smith also claimed that her husband had been reinstated after his disqualification
for drug use, but apparently neglected to tell the whole truth. De Bruin
was reinstated by the Dutch Federation after it was decided there had been
an irregularity in the testing procedure (which does not mean the test was
negative either). But the International Amateur Athletics Federation renewed
the four-year ban and he remains officially suspended.
And yet, Americans who claim Smith "came out of nowhere" have
obviously not done their research. When she won two gold medals at last
summer's European Championships in Vienna, Smith's European competitors
knew she would be in the running in Atlanta. The aggressive finger-pointing
of the American press came off as embarrassing sour grapes. After all, Smith's
winning time in the 400 IM would not have won a medal in 1992.
Reason to cheer, Michelle Smith celebrates third gold medal
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa
Smith ignored the newspapers (she read none of them) and went on to win
her third gold medal in the 200 IM, although there was speculation on deck
in the morning that she was considering scratching from the event. It was
mere wishful thinking, however, as Smith qualified 7th for the final. Again,
her winning time of 2:13.93 would not have medalled in 1992. Defending champion
and world record-holder Li Lin of China was third in 2:14.74. At 25, Lin
is clearly past her prime.
During the press conference Smith said, "I considered not swimming
this event yesterday because I have the 200 butterfly in two days run. I
decided to swim the heats this morning; when I saw the times were not that
spectacular, I thought I had a good chance and that I should go for it."
On the final night of competition, critics were rabidly anticipating the
results of Smith's drug tests, certain that she would be caught and the
whole mystery brought to light.
Not a chance. Smith did have a mishap before her 200 butterfly final, however,
as her goggles snapped in the ready room. When the finalists were marched
onto the deck, Smith was not among them. After trying without success to
find her husband, she quickly borrowed a pair of goggles from a Dutch swimmer
and appeared, no doubt a little shaken, to swim her last race. This time
she could only manage a bronze.
"It wasn't really me in the first 100 metres," she said later,
"Normally I'm out a little bit faster. It took me a while to get into
the race and I didn't ever catch up."
Was she relieved that it was all over?
"No, I'm sad it's over because I've really enjoyed all the racing,"
Smith said, then choked up when she added, "This has been the greatest
week of my life." One journalist asked her a question in Gaelic, and
the mood lightened when Smith replied in kind.
"He just wanted to know what Bill Clinton asked me," she translated.
"He just told me he admired what I'd done this week in all my races
and he said 'I also like the way you've handled the way the press have thrown
all that crap at you.' He said 'we've had to deal with that ourselves, we
know what it's like.' "
Despite that humorous slant, many doubts remain. With no positive tests,
there is nothing to go on, and yet if Smith were on drugs, it is unlikely
she would test positive at the Olympics. She's too intelligent for that.
Some feel she should quit now, while she is ahead, that if she continues
she will be tripped up, like her husband. And yet she says she plans to
go to Perth in 1998. She will be 28.
What is to stop her? The iron-willed Smith has already made history in Ireland,
and even if her federation were protecting her, the recognition they have
gained through her success will have been worth it. But FINA has her on
its hit list, and she most certainly knows it. No matter what, she has to
But back on the Emerald Isle, they couldn't care less about all of that.
The pubs were open non-stop after Smith's first gold medal, and there was
even talk of having a national holiday to welcome home the red-haired heroine
who took the Americans by storm. By now any controversy is just a bunch
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