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Smith Hardly Able to Bask in Spotlight

Swimming: Irish competitor's second gold medal results in more speculation that drugs may have been involved.


ATLANTA — The Seoul Olympics had Flo Jo. Atlanta, so far, has Michelle Smith.

Smith is the Irish swimmer whose dramatic improvement led to her nation's first gold medal by a woman Saturday, a performance that stunned the swimming world. She had scarcely toweled off before a blizzard of accusations flew, charging that her remarkable times could only have been arrived at through use of performance-enhancing drugs.

It's only going to get worse, as Smith, 26, came roaring back Monday night to win her second gold medal. She was still standing poolside when a television reporter asked her reaction to the rumors of her drug use. Smith smiled and said, "I think it's funny. I think I'm the most-tested athlete in Ireland."

The 5-foot-3 swimmer doesn't look like a drugged-out behemoth, but such controversy is hardly surprising. Insinuating that a competitor has taken performance-enhancing drugs has become a cottage industry in swimming. The pool deck is rumor central in the sport, with guilt by association the primary mode of detection.

"If you don't know, you can't make false accusations," American swimmer Janet Evans said. "If you are asking if the accusations are out there, I would say that yes, they are. I've heard a lot of things from a lot of people. You ask me like I know [the truth of the allegations], I don't know, but it's a topic of conversation on the pool deck."

The sport used to have the Chinese team to gossip about, but their swimmers have been bombing here. After three days of individual competition, only two Chinese swimmers have made a final and that yielded one gold medal. Those awful performances that have in turn spawned speculation that China's women discontinued their drug use to avoid detection here.

China exhibited the classic pattern that draws suspicion: Having posted promising but spotty results before, the Chinese women marched into the World Championships in Rome and took home 12 of the 16 available gold medals. Since 1990, 19 Chinese swimmers have been suspended for failing drug tests.

Now, attention has turned to Smith, who graduated from the University of Houston and has dropped her time in the 400-meter freestyle by 19 seconds in the last year. Smith was 25th in the 400 free at the 1988 Olympics and 26th in the 1992 Games and had never finished higher than 17th in Olympic competition.

Evans weighed in Monday, saying that she too had wondered about a swimmer making such marked improvement at age 26.

"Yeah, it is a little surprising," Evans said. "It's kind of out of nowhere, but some people are better when they are older, some people are better when they are younger, I guess.

"I think any time a person in a country has dramatic improvement, there is that question. . . . It is questionable and suspicious. But you can be a good athlete and change your training methods and work very hard; you can improve. I'm not defending her. It's a tremendous drop and it's questionable, but it's possible."

Smith was also the center of another controversy, involving her late entry into the 400 freestyle. Officials with ACOG gave Irish Olympic officials the wrong entry deadline dates and, technically, Smith's entry was past the deadline. ACOG admitted its mistake and international swimming officials allowed the entry.

A protest was lodged and, late Sunday night, an arbitration panel allowed Smith to swim.

Had Smith not swum, Evans' time would have qualified her for the final.

"I'm actually disappointed," Smith said about the protest. "In the Olympic Games, you are supposed to have a spirit of fair play. I don't think it's fair play if you are trying to disqualify a competitor. If you are a good competitor, you take on all comers on the day. If you win a medal because you've disqualified one of your competitors, then you can't really feel you deserve it."

Patrick Hickey, Ireland's IOC member, was furious about the American-led protest.

"It was absolutely vicious," Hickey said. "The Americans are jealous of our beating them for gold medals."

Dermot Sherlock, General Secretary of the Irish Olympic Committee, angrily lectured reporters Monday morning and tried to squelch the rumors that have been swirling around his nation's most recent sporting heroine.

"I come from a country that has very strong libel and defamation laws," Sherlock said, wagging his finger at reporters. "You cannot accuse someone falsely. You need evidence, and until it's fair, you're way open to legal action."

Smith is an easy target for drug rumors, not just because of her dramatic improvement but also because of her marriage to Erik de Bruin, who also coaches her. De Bruin is a two-time Olympian from the Netherlands who competed in the shotput and discus. He failed a drug test in 1993 and was suspended for four years. Smith attributes her improvements to his innovative training methods.

Smith was poised and articulate after her victory Monday night, even as she acknowledged what one Irish journalist called the "ungraciousness" of Americans who are tainting her victory.

"I understand why people are asking the questions, but I've worked very hard for this for 3 1/2 years," she said, showing no sign of discomfort. "I've put my heart and soul into training. All I do is eat, sleep and train. This is the culmination of all that hard work and nothing else."

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