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How Ireland's Swim Flame Was Extinguished

Jun 10, 2012  - Craig Lord


An Irish senator and former athlete has described Michelle Smith de Bruin, the disgraced swimmer found to have contaminated a urine sample with alcohol in 1998, as his nation's "greatest Olympian”.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan, speaking before being given a fellowship of Athlone Institute of Technology, noted that the winner of three gold medals at the 1996 Olympic Games had never tested positive, the Irish media reports. 

Coghlan's words sparked debate in Ireland after Smith de Bruin was not among those called by the Olympic Council of Ireland to serve as one of the 41 torch-bearers for the 2012 Olympic flame as it made its way through Ireland in a good-relations exercise with Britain.

No charge for a banned substance was ever brought. The charge was contamination - because that is what lawyers acting for FINA, the international federation, believed wholeheartedly that they could prove without fear of failure or risk of a technicality getting in the way. In taking that path, FINA ensured that one of the most doubted swimmers in history was removed from the sport. 

There was, of course, more to it than Coghlan cared to mention. At the Court of Arbitration appeal against De Bruin's suspension, her own lawyer raised the issue of a banned substance, androtestosterone, that the parties, he stated, had "agreed" not to mention, the media assembled on the day in Lausanne heard.

The fact was, FINA's legal advice was to go for a charge they believed could not fail. It is how the Irish swimmer came to leave the sport through the exit door marked "hall of shame".

Read a little about the events of 1998 here.

“There are athletes around the world that are tainted with positive tests and won medals who were never castigated in their home countries like Michelle was,” said Coghlan. “Let’s remember she never - ever - tested positive, particularly during her Olympic year. If you look at the record books, she is down as winning four medals at the Atlanta Olympics and it is because of that that I have to give her credit as Ireland’s best ever Olympian. There are a lot of people who would agree with me but there are also a lot of people who would disagree with me."

Indeed there are. And here is a hint as to why:


  • 2:13.93 Olympic gold 1996 (aged 27
  • 2:15.27 1995
  • 2:19.48 1994
  • 2:23.83 1992 heats Olympic Games
  • 2:22.53 1988 (aged 19)


  • 4:39.18 Olympic gold 1996 (aged 27)
  • 4:42.81 1995
  • 4:47.89 1994 
  • 4:57.17 1993
  • 4:58.94 1992
  • 4:56.52 1991  
  • 4:59.88 1990   (aged 21)

The Irish swimmer moved from the status of "unknown" over 400m freestyle (literally, she had no swim under 4mins 25sec ever registered against her name prior to 1996) to a swimmer who in Olympic year managed this:

  • 4:07.25 Olympic gold 1996 (aged 27)
  • 4:08.64 July 1996, a swim that caused controversy not just over speed but because of a dispute over whether it met the deadline for Olympic entry.
  • 4:09.00 heats at the 1996 Olympics

There had never been anything like it in the sport. Foul play was widely suspected. Coghlan, a former track athlete for Ireland, may care to chew over the numbers of a sport he appears to understand very little about as he contemplate why folk far and wide in swimming questioned Smith's unprecedented progress from 1994, not long after the start of her relationship with banned Dutch athlete Erik De Bruin.