Michelle Smith, the controversial Irish swimmer who was hailed as Ireland’s greatest sports hero when she won three gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, faces a possible suspension after failing a drug test last January, according to The Times of London and Swimming World Magazine.
Times reporter Craig Lord, Swimming World’s chief European correspondent, broke the story in the April 29 edition of The Times.
Smith and the Irish Swimming Association reportedly were informed of the test result last Friday by FINA, swimming’s international ruling body. The sample apparently was collected in an out-of-competition test in January, during the World Swimming Championships in Perth. Smith, 28, did not compete at the World Championships, withdrawing after an auto accident last October. The analysis of Smith’s sample was done at a laboratory in Europe, according to a top FINA official.
Smith has called a press conference for 4:00 pm local time (11:00 am EDT) on Wednesday in Dublin, at the office of her attorney, Peter Lennon.
Swimming World has learned that the drug test apparently did not involve a specific banned substance, but a test may be considered failed if there is evidence the sample has been tampered with. The nature of the drug will determine the suspension facing Smith. FINA rules call for a suspension of up to four years. They also state that all results from the previous six months may be annulled, which would mean Smith may be stripped of the two gold and two silver medals she won at last year’s European Championships in Seville. However, under FINA and IOC rules, she would not lose her three Olympic gold medals.
Smith did not return calls to Swimming World last night. However Peter Lennon, her attorney, said: “She had not failed a drugs test within the meaning of the rules.” Lennon went on to ask: “Have you ever known an athlete to have been suspended for taking a drug that is not itemized (by FINA or the IOC) or particularized? Have you ever known an athlete to have been suspended for interfering with a sample as is alleged here?”
Smith’s accomplished have been under a dark cloud of suspicion since 1993, when she began training under Dutch discus thrower, Erik De Bruin, who later became her husband. Previously unranked among the world’s top 100 swimmers in any event, she made unprecedented improvements and in 1996 was the world leader in several events. In 1993, De Bruin was banned from his sport for four years by the IAAF after a positive drug test.
In January 1997, Swimming World outlined the case against Smith in an article entitled, “Why Is Everyone Saying All Those Nasty Things About a Nice Irish Girl Like Michelle Smith?” The article explained why knowledgeable swimming observers almost unanimously believe Smith to have used illegal, performance-enhancing substances, a belief given further credence by De Bruin’s comments that he did not feel using drugs was unfair. In a later issue, Smith’s chief defender, Chalkie White, an Irish journalist, penned a reply.
For his part, De Bruin blamed accusations of drug use on Americans who were “sore losers,” particularly American distance ace, Janet Evans.
Smith has always denied cheating and blamed the controversy on the American media. Her plight won the sympathy of President Bill Clinton, who said that he too had “been a victim” of American media distortion.