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They Made Waves

Netherlands' De Bruijn sets a world record in the 100-meter butterfly, but suspicion still follows her around.

September 18, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — Inge de Bruijn marched onto the pool deck like royalty, an orange and blue robe, a latex white crown.


She sprang into the water and bounced through two laps like a jet ski, furious, powerful.


She touched the wall first, won an Olympic gold, set a world record.


And on the medal stand, she cried.


"I was flying in the water, it felt like a trance," she said afterward.

(That proves it.)

By the end of this week, the Netherlands' De Bruijn could be the greatest individual swimmer of these Olympics, a favorite in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle after Sunday's gold in the 100-meter butterfly.

By then, she will also certainly be the most tarnished.

Because she is this year's psssst swimmer.

Everything that is said about her is followed by a whisper.

Every whisper is that she is winning with drugs.

Banned human growth hormones. Stuff that sneakily makes you stronger, but then confesses with your appearance.

(Just look at her large jaw.)

This is not fair.

Even though De Bruijn didn't win her first world championship until last year at age 26, an exceedingly old age in this sport of strong kids, she has never tested positive for any illegal substance.

So she has set five world records this year.

So Susie O'Neill, Australia swimming star, said her times were "Sus," which is short for suspicious.

So U.S. swimmers are falling all over themselves to talk about how De Bruijn is incredible, stupendous, unusual, weird and surprising.

Legally, she is absolutely as clean as those flowers she cradled.

Morally, everybody should shut up.

But that's exactly what many wrote during the 1996 Olympics about a small-town Irish woman named Michelle Smith.

Like De Bruijn, Smith came out of relative obscurity to have a chance at three gold medals.

When she won all three, everyone said it was because she was on drugs.

Nobody gets that fast, that quick. Just look at the arms. How about those shoulders. Check out that acne.

Smith denied these charges to the point of tears.

"I put my heart and soul into training," she said at the time. "All I do is eat, sleep and train."

Apparently, that's not all she was doing.

Two years later, she was banned from swimming for tampering with a urine sample.

Four years later, naivete has gone the way of bikini Speedos.

There is no more benefit of the doubt. There is far less humanity.

Around a surprise champion's head is placed not a wreath of flowers, but one of guilt.

This is where the true horror of drugs is found.

Not in those who willingly abuse them, but in those around them who don't.

Some top Chinese women flunk the test. Bunches of East Germans are proven dirty. Michelle Smith makes us look like fools.

Now every new star is sus.

Four years ago, I shuddered at those who would spoil a golden moment with a question about drugs.

On Monday, I asked the second of those questions.

I wondered what De Bruijn thought about the drug accusations.

The minute the words left my mouth, I felt an uneasy regret, as if I had asked someone if they had stopped beating their wife.

But, once burned, I would ask that question again in a heartbeat.

"If you work very hard, people want to chuck your head off," De Bruijn answered. "It's a sad thing, this type of world we live in. It shouldn't be this way."

But what about Michelle Smith?

"I don't understand," De Bruijn said. "We're very different. I didn't come from nowhere. I've always been up there."

She mentioned that her last name only sounds like that of Smith's husband, Erik De Bruin, a former track star who was banned for using illegal substances.

"We're not family at all," she said. "I've never kept company with her or him."

She shook her head and, for the first time in several long minutes, she smiled.

"Right now, I'm just above all the accusations, because I've got the gold medal."

If only it were that easy.

"It took an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary athlete to beat [Jenny Thompson]," Richard Quick, U.S. women's coach, said after the U.S. star finished fifth to De Bruijn. "In my opinion, in 1992, [Thompson] was beaten by someone who was using performance-enhancing [drugs] but I'm not saying that about Inge at all, and I want that in the same sentence."

The drug test given Olympic swimmers after each race is not really a drug test, but an IQ test. They have to be really dumb to be using a drug shortly before they know they will get caught.

The tests that catch athletes are the ones given them at surprise moments at home. The test that detects some of the more serious stuff has not yet been invented.

"Hopefully our drug users don't improve faster than our drug tests can improve," said B.J. Bedford, U.S. backstroker. "But I know Inge, I think she is doing the right thing."

Sure she is. She, and every other gold-medal winner from nowhere.

That is the hope. That is the new Olympic dream.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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