The Whiskey Rebellion: How Ireland’s Michelle Smith Became A Poster Girl For Cheating

Swimming World June 2021- Takeoff To Tokyo - How Irelands Michelle Smith Became A Poster GIrl For Cheating

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Takeoff To Tokyo – How Ireland’s Michelle Smith Became A Poster Girl For Cheating

By John Lohn
Photos By Tim Morse Photography

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Ireland’s Michelle Smith—a four-time Olympic medalist in 1996 who received a four-year ban from the sport in 1988 for tampering with a doping sample—has been defined as being a poster girl for cheating, and by her willingness to cut corners and take advantage of performance-enhancing drug use to make the leap from an athlete of very-good skill to one of elite status.

Her presence on the international stage was inconsequential. She didn’t affect the makeup of podiums. She didn’t influence any championship finals. At least, that’s the way the career of Michelle Smith unfolded for most of the years she represented Ireland in global competition.

But at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, Smith shined as one of the most successful athletes in Atlanta. To some, her story was about a meteoric rise, a late bloomer rewarded for patience and persistence.

Others, though, knew better.

This sudden surge was about something entirely different—and suspicious.

Between the 1988 (Seoul) and 1992 (Barcelona) Olympics, Smith represented Ireland internationally in seven individual events, never advancing out of the preliminary heats! A best finish of 17th in the 200 meter backstroke in 1988 defined Smith as nothing more than an also-ran, and her performances from 1992—which featured a top finish of 26th in the 400 individual medley—once again rendered Smith, then a 22-year-old, as inconsequential on the international stage.

A NEW OUTLOOK ON TRAINING
Smith was an athlete who may have dedicated herself to her aquatic endeavors and put forth 100% during training sessions. But the sports world is made up of athletes who span the spectrum of talent, and Smith landed somewhere in the very-good sector. She was gifted enough to earn coveted Olympic berths, but not blessed with the skill to naturally appear on an international podium.

If Smith was an insignificant factor through the 1992 Olympics, the same could not be said of the Irishwoman by the time of the 1994

World Championships in Rome. By that point, Smith was training with Dutchman Erik de Bruin, a two-time Olympic discus thrower who had been handed a four-year ban in 1993 by the International Amateur Athletic Association (IAAF) for a failed doping test.

De Bruin, who Smith married in 1996, possessed a unique view of doping, and the advantages provided by the practice. The Dutchman identified disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as an idol, despite Johnson being stripped of his gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for a positive drug test. His words suggested a blind-eye approach to the potential boost of pharmaceutical assistance.

“Who says doping is unethical?” de Bruin once asked. “Who decides what is ethical? Is politics ethical? Is business ethical? Sport is, by definition, dishonest. Some people are naturally gifted, others have to work very hard. Some people are not going to make it without extra help.”

HUGE IMPROVEMENTS
Because Smith was not yet capturing medals on the global stage, the improvements she made between the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships did not send the Irishwoman into an interrogation room.
They should have.

In the two years between Barcelona and Rome, Smith registered improvements that were highly unusual for a fledgling age-group swimmer, let alone a woman in her mid-20s. In the 400 IM, Smith went from 26th out of 32 competitors in Barcelona to winning the consolation final in Rome. Her time in the event dropped by 11-plus seconds, an eternity in a sport where improvements are typically measured in fractions of a second. In the 200 IM, Smith notched a four-second improvement between 1992 and 1994, that jump enabling Smith to place 12th in prelims at the World Champs.

Perhaps the most startling of her performances at the 1994 World Championships arrived in the 200 butterfly, an event she didn’t even contest at the Olympic Games two years earlier. Racing the 200 fly for the first time in international waters, Smith finished fifth. The effort came on the heels of a bout of glandular fever that disrupted her training in the months ahead of Rome. There was also a change in Smith’s physique, an alteration that could not be overlooked.

“It was a complete metamorphosis,” said Gary O’Toole, a two-time Olympian for Ireland. “The Michelle I remembered had been round and feminine and carried not a lot of excessive weight, but some. I looked at her and said, ‘My God, what have you been taking?’”

Smith’s notable progressions from 1994 were followed by greater success at the 1995 European Championships, which served as her true breakout competition. The meet was also the precursor for what would unfold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Racing in Vienna, Austria, Smith left the European Champs with gold medals in the 200 fly and 200 IM, along with a silver medal in the 400 IM. Her times, just as they had in Rome, dipped considerably. Smith was a second quicker in the 200 fly and had improved by another four seconds in the 200 IM. In the 400 medley, Smith lopped five seconds off the time she managed in Rome.

SOMETHING AMISS
With the 100th anniversary of the Modern Olympics approaching in 1996, there was no doubt that Smith would be a medal contender in multiple events. There was also little doubt among rival athletes that something was amiss. Competitors have a keen ability to sense anomalies in their foes, and Smith’s performances were off the charts. Her time drops were complemented by a vast change in her physique, a change that mirrored what was seen in East Germany’s swimmers during their country’s systematic doping program of the 1970s and 1980s.

It didn’t take long in Atlanta for Smith to become one of the most-talked-about stories of the Games. On the opening night of action, Smith blew away the field in the 400 IM, her winning time of 4:39.18 almost three seconds faster than American silver medalist Allison Wagner…and just under 20 seconds quicker than what Smith posted in the previous Olympiad!

Two days later, Smith won her second gold medal, taking the 400 free in 4:07.25. The event was relatively new for Smith, whose best at the start of the year was a mere 4:26!

Aside from the 19-second improvement within the year, there was additional controversy tied to the 400 freestyle. Not originally entered in the event, officials allowed Smith to participate in the race despite the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) missing the entry deadline. It was argued, ultimately before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), that the Irish Olympic Committee was given incorrect entry information. With Smith entered, American distance legend Janet Evans finished ninth in the preliminary heats and failed to advance to the final. USA Swimming protested Smith’s inclusion, but to no avail. Smith’s late registration for the 400 free was complemented by allegations of doping by Smith.

“The Americans are jealous this swimmer from a little country like Ireland took a gold medal off them,” said Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, referring to the 400 IM. “They are doing all they can to get Michelle Smith thrown out. They couldn’t win by appeal, so they are trying another direction with their suggestions about drug taking. There is nothing to justify it.”

There were black-and-white numbers that provided just cause for raised eyebrows. As Smith was congratulated by U.S. President Bill Clinton for her achievements, several athletes spoke freely about what they were witnessing. Included in that group was Evans, who was racing in her third Olympiad in Atlanta.

“Are you asking me if she’s on drugs?” Evans said. “Any time someone has a dramatic improvement, there’s that question. I have heard that question posed in the last few weeks about that swimmer. If you’re asking if the accusations are out there, I would say, ‘Yes.’”

A “NATIONAL HERO”?
As allegations flew, Smith continued to flourish, winning the 200 IM for her third gold medal and adding a bronze medal in the 200 fly in her final race. Not surprisingly, Smith became a national hero, citizens of her homeland hailing her accomplishments while ignoring the suspect circumstances surrounding her rise.

The next year, Smith starred at the 1997 European Championships in Seville, Spain. She won her prime event, the 400 IM, and claimed silver medals in the 400 free and 200 fly. There was also a gold medal in the 200 free, her first in that event in international competition.

For all the success Smith had experienced, she had proven to be difficult to monitor outside of the pool. On several occasions, drug testers had been unable to identify the whereabouts of Smith to perform doping-control tests, and Smith’s unwillingness to cooperate with doping procedures triggered rebukes from FINA, the world governing body of swimming. Still, she remained eligible to compete and skirt the doping system.

Until the morning of Jan. 10, 1998. While the World Championships were unfolding in Perth, Australia, Smith was absent from the competition, having suffered injuries in a car accident a few months earlier. But doping officials decided to collect an out-of-competition test from Smith, which follows normal procedure. When the doping officials arrived at Smith’s residence, they were forced to stop their car at a padlocked gate. Eventually, Smith walked down the driveway, unlocked the gate and let the testers into her home.

Over the course of the morning, and with Smith’s husband present, testers tried to obtain a urine sample from the athlete. Smith’s husband initially indicated the couple was set to travel that morning and Smith did not have time to produce a sample. When testers noted they could travel with the couple and would wait until the athlete was ready, the trip was suddenly called off.

In two separate instances, Smith provided a urine sample, initially filling the testing vial shy of the necessary amount to be collected. When she came back the second time, the doping officials recognized the smell of whiskey emanating from the sample. The officials had Smith complete the appropriate paperwork and filed the sample. In April 1998, it was revealed that Smith faced suspension not for a failed doping test, but for tampering with a sample. The amount of whiskey found in Smith’s sample was enough to cause human fatality!

BANNED FROM THE SPORT
In August 1998, Smith was banned by FINA for four years for tampering with a doping sample. Smith appealed the ban, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the penalty in 1999, although the ruling allowed Smith to retain her Olympic medals. To this day, Smith has maintained the innocence she proclaimed in her statement following the confirmation of her ban.

“I am deeply saddened by the decision of the court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and in particular their decision to prefer circumstantial evidence concerning the manipulation charge as distinct from direct evidence given by me at the hearing of my appeal,” Smith said. “I today stand accused of having used banned substances over the course of my career, and that was the motive found by the Court as to why I would have attempted to manipulate the sample in question.

“I reaffirm what I have always told you, that I have never used any banned substances in the course of my career, nor have I ever been charged by FINA of using any banned substance in the course of my career. I am proud of what I have achieved and assure those who have supported me and believe in me, that my victories in Atlanta and Seville are not hollow, and have been achieved without the use of any illegal performance-enhancing substance.

“Both I and my husband have been publicly attacked and vilified by various sections of the media and public since I won my first gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, and that makes me deeply unhappy. I still believe that I have been targeted by FINA since my Olympic success, and believe that I am, even today, correct in that view, having regard to the disclosures made for the first time by the Irish Times of the background to the Out of Competition Doping Control missions that were carried out on me in 1997 and 1998.
“I will forever cherish my moments of victory, and hope that those who still believe in me will also cherish their memories of those times.”
* * *
The future for Smith following her ban included a life away from the spotlight she knew as an athlete, and a career as a successful barrister in Ireland.

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TSwimming World June 2021 - King 15 - Eddie Reese Retires After Leading Texas To 15th NCAA Championship
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Swimming World May 2021 Issue

FEATURES

014 WOMEN’S NCAAs: A NEW NO. 1
For the first time in the history of the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships—since 1982—the University of Virginia finished first. It was also the first time it cracked the top 5 with its previous highest finish sixth in 2019.

  • VIRGINIA’S ROAD TO HISTORY
    by Dan D’Addona
  • NC STATE ADDS TO ACC DOMINANCE
    by Dan D’Addona
  • THE TALK OF THE MEET: MAGGIE MacNEIL
    by John Lohn

018 MEN’S NCAAs: THE PERFECT RETIREMENT GIFT
Days before their coach, Eddie Reese, officially announced his retirement from coaching after 43 years, the Texas men’s team won their 15th men’s NCAA national team championship.

  • THIS ONE’S FOR EDDIE!
    by Andy Ross
  • SCINTILLATING PERFORMANCES: SHAINE CASAS & RYAN HOFFER
    by John Lohn
  • PATIENCE REWARDED: MAX McHUGH & NICK ALBIERO
    by Andy Ross

022 NCAA D-II CHAMPS: SOME THINGS NEVER SEEM TO CHANGE
by Andy Ross
A year into the pandemic that has completely changed our world, Queens University of Charlotte brought about some stability to the 2021 NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving Championships by sweeping their sixth straight women’s and men’s team titles.

023 NO LIMITS!
by David Rieder
Claire Curzan has been swimming fast since she was a young age grouper and has continued to do so in high school. Last March, she came within 13-hundredths of the American record in the short course 100 fly, and in April, she found herself within 22-hundredths of the long course U.S. best. She’s versatile, she’s coachable, she has international experience, and she’s moved from a fringe Olympic contender to an Olympic favorite. Curzan is only 16, and her promising future couldn’t be brighter.

026 TAKEOFF TO TOKYO: WHEN IRISH EYES WEREN’T SMILING
by John Lohn
Ireland’s Michelle Smith—a four-time Olympic medalist in 1996 who received a four-year ban from the sport in 1998 for tampering with a doping sample—has been defined as being a poster girl for cheating, and by her willingness to cut corners and take advantage of performance-enhancing drug use to make the leap from an athlete of very-good skill to one of elite status.

029 50 SWIMMERS, 6 MEDALS
by Dan D’Addona
The Tokyo Olympics will mark the fourth occasion that open water swimming will be contested on the Olympic level, and even a 10-kilometer marathon race can bring exciting moments and dramatic finishes.

030 JOSH MATHENY: RISING STAR
by Matthew De George
From a middle-schooler newly committed to swimming full-time in 2016, the future looks encouraging for 18-year-old Josh Matheny, who approaches the U.S. Olympic Trials for Tokyo in June as a dark horse to make the team in men’s breaststroke.

032 ISHOF: THE ART OF SWIMMING
by Bruce Wigo
This is the story of Hero and Leander, Lord Byron and the birth of open water swimming.

035 NUTRITION: HYDRATION—BEYOND THIRST!
by Dawn Weatherwax
Hydration truly has a daily importance for all kinds of swimmers from age groupers to Olympians to Masters swimmers, but it tends to get more notoriety when the weather gets warmer.

COACHING

012 THE POWER OF POSITIVE COACHING
by Michael J. Stott
Relationships built upon honesty, trust and communication go a long way toward cementing a bond between coach and athlete. Coupling that with knowledge of the individual first and athlete second produces a positive working relationship that can last for a lifetime.

038 SWIMMING TECHNIQUE CONCEPTS: MAXIMIZING SWIMMING VELOCITY (Part 1)—STROKE RATE vs. STROKE LENGTH
by Rod Havriluk
Swimming velocity is the criterion measure for swimming performance and is the product of stroke length and stroke rate. This article explains how stroke length and stroke rate vary and how stroke time provides insight into maximizing swimming velocity.

042 Q&A WITH COACH STEVE HAUFLER
by Michael J. Stott

044 HOW THEY TRAIN CHARLOTTE SHAMIA
by Michael J. Stott

TRAINING

037 DRYSIDE TRAINING: THE IM DRYLAND CIRCUIT
by J.R. Rosania

JUNIOR SWIMMER

047 UP & COMERS: TEAGAN O’DELL
by Shoshanna Rutemiller

COLUMNS

008 A VOICE FOR THE SPORT

011 DID YOU KNOW: ABOUT THE MOREHOUSE TIGER SHARKS?

046 THE OFFICIAL WORD

048 GUTTERTALK

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