Her incomparable drive and determination do not end with the
race. She hops out of the pool, pulls up a chair in front of the
cameras, and the competition rages on for Michelle Smith of
Ireland. The cheating allegations have not disappeared, but
neither has Smith's defiant response.
This is an article from the July 25, 1996 issue
Smith won the 200-meter individual medley last night at the
Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. It was her third gold medal of
these Games, two more than the highly touted Australian and
Chinese swim teams have combined. An Irish journalist prefaced a
question to Smith by labeling her "the greatest Irish sports
story ever," but the fawning comments from her countrymen were
again followed by questions--from reporters from the rest of the
world--pertaining to performance-enhancing drugs. Smith's races
have been so outstanding, her improvement so drastic, that no
one without a brogue seems prepared to accept it as simply the
result of hard work.
With each victory, Smith seems to have grown more agitated and
combative. What do you expect from the greatest Irish sports
story ever, sheepish giggles and an apology? At time she sounds
as if she got her golds across the Georgia Tech campus, at the
boxing venue, as a scrappy welterweight who will step outside
with any man in the room.
"I just have to laugh at it," she said. "Every time I'm tested
I come up negative, and I have been tested again and again and
again. For every time someone on the U.S. team is tested, I'm
tested five times."
Because Smith, 26, won her first gold (in the 400 individual
medley) on Saturday, her postrace drug test has presumably been
completed. IOC policy states that test results are made public
only when they are positive, but the National Olympic Committee
of Ireland has asked the IOC to release the results of Smith's
tests to silence the cynics. Smith? She insists she couldn't
care less. "I just try to use it to my advantage," she said. "If
people put obstacles in my way, it just makes me try harder."
While the U.S. has dominated the swimming competition as a team,
Smith has been the outstanding individual of opening week. In
Dublin, the American embassy is receiving protests from Irish
citizens who are upset at the steroid accusations, and the pubs
are extending their hours to provide time for Smith-related
celebrations. When she competes in the 200 butterfly
tomorrow--an event she considers her strongest--Smith will
attempt to equal the women's record for individual swimming gold
medals won in an Olympics. Kristin Otto of East Germany, in
1988, was the last swimmer to accomplish the feat. It was later
revealed that she had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
Smith's doubters point to her incredible improvement--she cut 19
seconds off her 400 freestyle time in 15 months--and the track
record of her husband, Erik de Bruin, a Dutch discus thrower who
was suspended for drug use three years ago. When asked if Smith
deserved the benefit of the doubt since she has never failed a
drug test, U.S. coach Richard Quick said yesterday, "We've been
giving these people the benefit of the doubt for 30 years. I
think it's time we take a close look at that kind of improvement."
Smith, with gold medal number three draped around her neck,
fired back, pointing out that her winning time in the 400 free
wasn't close to the 1988 winning time of U.S. swimmer Janet
Evans, who has never been accused of dabbling in drugs. "If you
look at the events that Janet swam in 1988, she won the 400
individual medley, she won the 400 freestyle, and then she went
on to win the 800," Smith said. "In the 400 freestyle, her time
was 4:03, and my winning time [in Atlanta] was 4:07. She
maintains she is drug-free, but she is swimming faster than me."
Smith has repeatedly attributed her stunning improvement to an
upgraded training regimen, which her husband adapted from his
track and field experience. According to one report, she had
intended to withdraw from last night's race with a sore
shoulder, but she insisted her only physical problem was a rash
she developed from shaving. She said she had considered pulling
out to concentrate on the 200 butterfly, but the preliminary
times convinced her that she had a chance for a gold.
After three laps, it appeared that Smith may have finally run
out of steam, but a surge in the final 50 meters allowed her to
finish in 2:13.93, almost half a second ahead of Marianne
Limpert of Canada.
In other events, Denis Pankratov won the 100 butterfly in a
world-record 52.27, and Norbert Rozsa of Hungary took the 200
breaststroke. The U.S. continued to dominate the relays as the
women's 4x100 medley team blew away the field. Beth Botsford,
Amanda Beard, Angel Martino and Amy Van Dyken combined to post a
time of 4:02.88, more than two seconds ahead of the Australians.
It was the only medal of the day for the U.S., but the home team
continued to add to its lead in the medal standings. The
Americans have piled up 18 swimming medals, including eight
golds, well ahead of runner-up Russia, which has won three golds
among its seven medals at the pool. China and Australia continue
to sink: The Aussies have no gold medals and only two silver and
four bronze, while the Chinese, who have won only one gold and
five total medals, have taken to complaining about the lack of
Chinese food in the athletes' village.
Ireland, meanwhile, also has three swimming gold medals--and all
three hang from the neck of one defiant and determined woman.