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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

U.S. Whine Goes Bad in Case Against Smith

July 26, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — Look at her freckles, they whisper.

Michelle Smith has the loveliest freckles, yet they talk about them as if they were diseased.

Acne. Can't you see the acne?

Look at her arms, they snicker.

Smith has wonderfully sculpted arms, tapered after six months of workouts with a former discus and shotput star. Yet they are certain they were stolen from a Greco-Roman wrestler.

A man's arms. Can't you see she has a man's arms?

And just listen to that voice.

It is hard, like her stare. It is disconcerting to those who think everyone from her country should sound like an Irish Spring commercial.

Weird voice. Can't you hear how deep it is?

Michelle Smith of Ireland, swimming for a record-tying fourth individual gold medal tonight, should be lauded as one of the most celebrated athletes of these Olympic Games.

Instead, she is being treated like a monster.

A whiny U.S. swim team has joined with an accommodating media to declare her guilty on all charges of taking an illegal performance-enhancing substance, such as steroids.

Even though she has never once tested positive. Even though she tested negative as recently as Wednesday.

We learned of that latest fact after an unprecedented announcement from swimming officials, who bowed to the Irish delegation's pleas to publicly clear their hero.

Question: When is the last time there was an announcement that Janet Evans has tested negative?

Answer: There hasn't been.

That's because no mob has ever lit the torches and run through the streets, chasing Evans, unlike like the mob that Evans sicced upon Smith.

It started earlier this week when Smith was allowed to enter the 400 freestyle--one of Evans' specialties--even though Smith had missed the entry deadline.

Irish officials claimed that they were misinformed by the Atlanta Olympic organizing committee, which is certainly believable. Arbitrators agreed.

Evans cried foul. And then came the drug question, where Evans did everything but directly accuse Smith of illegally beefing up. Evans talked of speculation, of "lots of talk around the pool." She hinted of knowledge. She did everything but wink.

"There have been a lot of accusations . . . of which I have not made any," Evans emphasized Thursday.

Perhaps. But if only she could have behaved with the class of a girl 10 years her junior. When Amanda Beard was asked about Michelle Smith a couple of nights ago, she said the issue shouldn't be discussed publicly. Period. End of story.

But Evans just had to bare those teeth. And in media outlets everywhere, the dinner bell rang for hungry critics who were not unarmed.

At the very least, Michelle Smith is guilty of incredibly poor judgment.

Coming to the Olympics with an official coach who was suspended from track and field three years ago for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance is as smart as trying to medal in a bikini.

The Irish delegation should have kept Erik de Bruin out of sight, even if he is her husband.

The circumstantial evidence is even more damning.

Smith is 26, never ranked, never respected, an unknown athlete from a country that doesn't even have a 50-meter pool. As recently as a month ago, her times ranked her 41st in the world in the 400-meter individual medley. And now she wins a gold? A month ago, she wasn't in the top 50 in the 400 freestyle. And now she wins another gold?

"What she has done is not just unusual, it's unprecedented," said Mark Schubert, U.S. assistant women's coach.

Throw in the United States' recent history of being burned by competitors performing with the help of drugs--both the East German and Chinese won medals against them before later testing positive for, or admitting to, substance use.

"Whining? Whining? Please!" John Leonard, executive director of the American Swim Coaches Assn., told reporters. "We first went through this 19 years ago. . . . Lives were changed because of people who cheated on us.

"Now you are seeing the same patterns and you are expecting us to be quiet? It's not whining, it's protecting our athletes."

That said, Leonard and Schubert and Evans and the whole lot of them should shut up.

Not only for their own self-respect, but for that of a country whose appeal has always been based on the simplest of tenets: Come here, and we will give you a chance to prove yourself.

The son of a carpenter does not have to grow up to be a carpenter. The daughter of the town drunk is not destined to be a prostitute.

There may be a 99% chance that everyone who claims Michelle Smith is helping her performance with drugs is right.

But what if they're not?

Everyone in your town knows somebody who has fought, in ways large and small, to protect those who fall into that 1%.

Michelle Smith may be a monster, but a bigger one is the U.S. swimming world and its sycophants, with flesh on their teeth.

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