Michelle Smith, the 26-year-old Irish swimmer who has leaped from obscurity to become the sensation of the Atlanta Games, captured her third gold medal Wednesday night by winning the 200-meter individual medley.
Smith led the entire race and held off valiant bids in the final lap by Canada’s Marianne Limpert and China’s world record holder Lin Li. Limpert finished second to win the silver medal while Lin took the bronze.
Smith became a national heroine after capturing Ireland’s first Olympic swimming gold medal in history in the 400-meter individual medley Saturday. “The pubs stayed open all night across the country to celebrate a remarkable feat by a true daughter of Ireland,” said team spokesman David Guiney.
When Smith duplicated the feat Monday in the 400-meter freestyle, rumors began to swirl that her astonishing improvement over the past two years was achieved through performance-enhancing drugs. Smith’s winning time of 4 minutes 7.25 seconds in the 400-meter freestyle knocked nearly 19 seconds off her previous best, which had set a national record 15 months ago.
The Irish delegation has asked that results from Smith’s urine test following Saturday’s victory be made public to quash speculation about drugs. “We think it is despicable that Michelle has to put up with this character assassination when she still has more races to swim,” Guiney said.
IOC officials say the ultra-modern urinalysis based on high resolution spectrometry that is being used at these Games to check for illicit substance can take up to 96 hours. Even so, many specialists say any urine test can be easily fooled with masking agents and that only blood samples would provide irrefutable proof that an athlete is not taking drugs.
Smith attributes her dramatic gains at an age when most swimmers are easing into retirement to a punishing regimen designed by her husband, the Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin. He says the secret to her late-blooming success is the application of sprint training methods used in track and field, but the fact that de Bruin is serving a four-year ban for a doping violation has fanned rumors that Smith may be taking performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s fair to say it’s been a topic of conversation on the pool deck,” said U.S. swimmer Janet Evans after being eliminated in the 400-meter freestyle heats Monday.
“I think any time a person has dramatic improvement there is going to be a question. But you don’t know so you can’t make false accusations.”
The suspicions raised by Evans and the U.S. Olympic officials have outraged the Irish, who charge the Americans have launched a smear campaign against Smith because they want to divert attention from poor showings by Evans and other U.S. swimmers.
“We are terribly disappointed in our American cousins,” said Joseph Cummiskey, the Irish Olympic team physician. “They should be ashamed of pointing the finger. Michelle has tested negative a dozen times over the past year. She’s as clean as anybody in swimming. The Americans should be asking why Evans is swimming 10 seconds slower than her best, not why Michelle is going faster than ever before.”
Unlike her precocious American rivals, Smith says she only began concentrating seriously on her swimming three years ago after dropping out of the University of Houston and securing financial support from the Irish Olympic federation. Since then, the six-hour-a-day training routine she has followed under de Bruin’s tutelage has started to pay big dividends.
“I’ve worked very, very hard for this,” she said after winning her second gold medal Monday. “All I do is eat, sleep and train. I have put my heart and soul into the last three and a half years. This is the culmination of all that hard work and nothing else.”
“I think it would be really stupid for someone like me to (use steroids), because when you are in the top 20, you are subject to testing any time. I was sitting at home in my pajamas on a Sunday morning recently and they came to my house looking for a urine sample.”
The U.S. Embassy in Dublin has been besieged by angry callers claiming that insinuations about Smith are an affront to Irish integrity that have damaged the long friendship between both nations.
The Irish-American tension was ignited when the United States and other teams objected to a ruling by the Court of Arbitration to allow Smith to compete in the 400-meter freestyle even though she missed the entry deadline. The Irish team won an appeal after the International Swimming Federation had denied Smith a slot in the race.
Smith says she feels hurt by the peevish complaints from her rivals. “There should be spirit of fair play. It is important for everybody should be given a chance. If you try to disqualify someone for something that is not their fault, it’s not fair.”
She will have a chance for a fourth medal on Friday.