SWIMNEWS ONLINE: March 1997 Magazine Articles

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Karin Helmstaedt

The dust has not yet settled over the Michelle Smith story. In fact, given the recent rumblings in Ireland, where a few hardened journalists are determined to uncover "the truth" about her unprecedented Olympic success, her deliberate low profile draws only more and more attention.

When Smith's biography came out in November, the first thing anyone noticed was that she and her publishers failed to invite any of the specialist swimming press to the launching of the book. Gold: A Triple Champion's Story is a starchy, repetitive grind written with Irish journalist Cathal Dervan. It leaves one thinking that if Smith's real life were as boring as her biography, no one would be interested in her at all. But this is hardly the case, and the quality of the book is of little relevance.

In short, it is both a mouthpiece--word for painful word--for Smith and a tribute to Irish sport, and the endless quotes from Irish politicians after each of Smith's successive gold medals are enough to exasperate even the most patient reader. The "Olympic Diary" chapters contain a good deal of ranting against the Americans, dumping heavily on their heroine Janet Evans, who "took the gold medal for bitchiness," according to Dervan.

It is interesting that, in the book, Smith insists that only the American press gave her any grief in Atlanta. Few European-based journalists, knowing their own reactions after Smith's achievements in Atlanta, would agree, and they remain keenly interested in her unconventional training habits, while the Americans have, for the most part, let the story lie.

Much to Smith's chagrin. In recent months a series of articles questioning the validity of her performances in the Irish press have provoked Smith's ire. Then Phillip Whitten wrote an article in the January issue of Swimming World that prompted the 27-year-old to threaten legal action against all publications insinuating that she may be using performance-enhancing drugs. One article quoted her as saying, "I still haven't a major sponsor and I fear it's because of these allegations."

Whitten quoted a 1993 interview with Smith's husband, banned Dutch discus-thrower Erik de Bruin. He claimed that for him, Ben Johnson "will always be the athlete of Seoul." Speaking about drugs, he went on to say, "Who says doping is unethical? Who decides what is ethical? Sport is by definition dishonest. Some people are naturally gifted, others have to work very hard. Some people are not going to make it without the extra help." Telling words indeed.

Smith claims repeatedly in her book that she "must be the most tested swimmer in the history of her sport." But in February, Tom Humphries ofThe Irish Times told it otherwise. He revealed that Smith was in fact unavailable for out-of-competition drug testing in the second quarter of 1995, and then again in October of 1996. Based on a rule passed by FINA last summer in Atlanta "which indicates that sanctions may be imposed on swimmers who are reported unavailable for testing more than two times," it was speculated that she may face a long-term suspension after testers could not find her yet again on February 3, 1997. Detailing the extensive correspondence between FINA and the Irish Amateur Swimming Association (IASA), the article said "the IASA had been previously aware of FINA's concerns regarding the contactability of Ireland's leading swimmer." Smith's tendency to avoid high level competition before major meets has been widely noticed, as has the fact that she neglects to clearly advise the IASA of her whereabouts in Holland and elsewhere.

Smith has perfected the art of cat-and-mousing.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

A meeting of the FINA Doping Panel and the Medical Commission was held in Lausanne in late February, apparently to discuss the problem, but at the time of writing no official announcement has been made.

One source in Ireland, preferring to remain anonymous, said that Smith's erratic training patterns have been cause for concern since 1994. "There is absolutely no structure to what she's doing, and that's deliberate," was the comment. "She keeps on the move."

Taking all of this into account, we return to the infamous biography, where there are passages that add to the sting of her husband's often careless comments. In the chapter called "Drugs" de Bruin's own suspension is blamed on the German professor, Manfred Donike, at the time head of the IOC laboratory in Kšln and one of the most active players in the fight against doping. On the same day that Smith won her first gold medal at the European Championships in Vienna, Donike died of a heart attack. The book reads, "When Erik was told the news 24 hours later, he said it gave him double reason to celebrate. Callous as it sounded, he meant it; he still means it."

Meanwhile, at the Leisureland Spring Meeting in Galway, Ireland early this month, Smith received a star's welcome. She set an Irish record in the 200 freestyle (2:01.38) and won the 100 IM. She spurned questions about anything other than the Galway meet and remained characteristically vague about her competition plans for the upcoming year. That Smith has perfected the art of cat-and-mousing is hardly surprising. Another particularly revealing statement in her biography has to do with "mind games." "That was something Erik had used in his favour when he had competed in world-class athletics competition. He encouraged me to play mind games with the opposition," she said.

These days, the opposition takes many forms, and Smith is determined to keep them guessing.

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