If all were right, Michelle Smith, the Irish swimmer, would be
an athlete of formidable celebrity. At last year's Atlanta
Olympics, she powered her way to three gold medals and a bronze.
She achieved this astonishing success at an age, 26, when most
female swimmers are a half decade beyond their best
performances. She's the first female athlete from Ireland to
have won an Olympic gold medal and the first Irish swimmer to
have won an Olympic medal of any sort. And she got her medals
despite the fact that there is no swimming pool in Ireland that
is more than half the length of an Olympic pool, which is 50
She is a handsome woman with bright eyes and bright teeth, her
head framed by wavy reddish-blonde hair. She speaks well, when
she chooses to speak, and has strong opinions, when she chooses
to share them. She's fluent in Gaelic and Dutch as well as
English. She's a hard worker. She's driven. Her parents,
middle-class Dubliners proud of the accomplishments of all four
of their children, are modest and kindhearted.
Do you think it would be difficult for advertising agencies and
marketing departments and publicists to package all this? Is it
hard to imagine a full-page ad for Aer Lingus in USA Today
featuring Smith as a mermaid, half-submerged in the sparkling
Irish Sea, floating above the words COME SWIM IN MY WATERS?
There's no such ad. There will be no such ad. Eight months after
her triumphs in Atlanta, Smith is virtually ignored outside her
own country and her own sport. Your plumber, your neighbor, your
kid's kindergarten teacher, they all know more about Eddie
Edwards, the nutty British ski jumper, than they do about Smith,
the most accomplished Olympic athlete in Irish history. That is
because Smith, with her broad shoulders and thick biceps,
carries a taint.
In innumerable reports from Atlanta in the days after Smith's
victories, the world press, fueled by innuendo from U.S.
swimmers and coaches, implied that no 26-year-old swimmer could
make the improvements Smith had made unless she had used
anabolic steroids or other banned performance-enhancing drugs.
The dispatches left the impression that Smith had risen
overnight to the top of the Olympic podium from some swimming
netherworld. In truth she had been ranked as the second-fastest
female swimmer in the world in two events at the end of 1995.
The media suggested that in the months leading up to the Games,
Smith had sliced huge chunks off her personal-best times. That
wasn't true either. There was scant mention that Smith's winning
times in Atlanta, while all personal bests, set no world
records. Or that Smith passed her four drug tests in Atlanta,
just as she has passed every other drug test she has ever taken.
That information was considered proof of nothing: In Atlanta
virtually nobody was flunking drug tests.
Smith had indeed made amazing progress, but over three years,
not a few months. She was not ranked among the top 25 female
swimmers in the world at any distance in any stroke in 1993. In
'94 she was 14th and 17th in two events; by '95 she was second
in two events and 10th and 13th in two others; and in '96 she
won three Olympic races. Rivals said that such a progression was
unheard-of for a swimmer in her 20s. Smith said that in '93,
while bouncing back from a debilitating bout of the viral
disease glandular fever (formally known as mononucleosis), she
had begun devoting herself fanatically to the training methods
of Erik de Bruin--a Dutchman who became Smith's boyfriend, then
her coach and, five weeks before the Olympics, her husband--and
that the combination of her hard work and de Bruin's coaching
had led to her dramatic improvement.
What remains unknown is whether the reputation and achievements
of the Irish swimmer have been cruelly maligned, or whether she
has perpetrated a fraud, cheating her fellow competitors--or at
least those not using banned substances--and the sports-watching
public. This much may be stated unequivocally: Michelle Smith
didn't rise from a netherworld to her Olympic triumphs, but she
certainly lives in a netherworld now.
Reporters tend to cover the Olympics in a state of annoyed
frenzy; the atmosphere in the working areas set up for the press
is about what you'd find in the kitchen of a giant catering
operation. In Atlanta the media contingent comprised several
thousand men and women, most of them earnest, all on deadline,
trying to satisfy the world's ferocious daily appetite for
"stories." In such an environment, apparently contradictory
facts tend not to be carefully weighed--there is little time--so
instinct takes over. Many members of the U.S. swimming
establishment suspected that Smith had used
performance-enhancing drugs, and that suspicion was widely
disseminated by the journalists in Atlanta. The result, more
than half a year later, is that sales of Smith's post-Olympic
instant biography are negligible in England, and the book is not
available in the U.S. Even in Ireland--even in Dublin, where
Smith's family has lived for centuries--there are taxi drivers
and nurses and bank tellers who will tell you that the
accomplishments of Michelle Smith are a sham.
She does have support in her homeland. On a weekday afternoon
last November, at Easons, a two-story bookstore on Shop Street
in the western port city of Galway, Smith was on the second
floor signing copies of her book, Gold: A Triple Champion's
Story, written with Irish sportswriter Cathal Dervan. A couple
of hundred people, copies of Gold in hand, stood in a long queue
that curled through the store and up the stairs. The
autograph-seekers leaned against shelves that held volumes by
Joyce and Wilde and Beckett. They waited cheerfully, many of
them for more than an hour, to gain a half-minute audience with
Smith. A large percentage of them were girls, exuberant and
skinny and wearing the dark, V-necked sweaters of their
parochial schools. More than a few of them, inspired by the
champion who sat before them, carried bathing suits and goggles
in their knapsacks.
Smith smiled nicely for the girls and their camera-wielding
mums. She wore chic cream-colored wool pants, a matching jacket
and a simple gold necklace. Her face looked rounder and softer
than it does on the back jacket of her book. In that photograph,
taken in the pool in Atlanta after one of Smith's victories, her
flexed left arm looks as if it belongs to a strong man, and her
jawline seems to be on loan from Mark Messier, the New York
Ranger with the haunting, prehistoric face. Smith signed the
proffered books with penmanship that was careful and girlish,
right down to the tiny circle with which she topped off the
second letter of Michelle. One girl examined her newly acquired
autograph with bulging eyes. She turned to Smith and said,
"Tankya, Meeshell." Then she ran off. Smith smiled sweetly again.
It's possible that some of the schoolgirls found their new book
disappointing. Gold, unlike most books of its genre, is not a
cheery, inspirational tale. It's a defense. The tone is often
angry. Long passages are devoted to Smith's irritation with
Irish swimming authorities, U.S. reporters and U.S. swimmer
Janet Evans, who might have invented a new form of indictment in
Atlanta when she said, regarding Smith's possible use of banned
drugs, "There are a lot of accusations going on around the
poolside, and I'm not making any of them." It was with those
words that the public tainting of Smith began. Smith's book
responds with less measured words, "Janet Evans took the gold
medal for bitchiness--in a field of one."
But it wasn't the book that attracted the crowd to Easons. It
was the chance to get a glimpse of the author. Before long, the
assemblage realized that there was another notable figure in its
midst. Touring the magazine rack, riffling through periodicals
devoted to antiques and home decorating, was the 33-year-old de
Bruin, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt (no collar, tails
out), faded dungarees and sneakers. De Bruin's appearance is
formidable; he has large, rounded shoulders, a narrow waist and
a taut neck and face. He looks like an athlete in training. For
several years in the early 1990s, de Bruin was the Netherlands'
best shot-putter and discus thrower. Then in 1993 he was banned
from competition for four years by the International Amateur
Athletic Federation (IAAF) after he failed a drug test. De
Bruin's urine sample had shown a testosterone level exceeding
the permitted limit, and signs of HCG, an IAAF-banned hormone
produced by the bodies of pregnant women. In appealing the
federation's decision, de Bruin argued that the machine used to
analyze his sample was faulty, that his testosterone numbers had
barely exceeded the permitted level and that these numbers had
been raised by his body's effort to fight glandular fever. After
the IAAF rejected his appeal, de Bruin, who also had a serious
hip injury, decided to retire from competition and become
Smith's full-time coach, even though he had never been around
Few observers doubt that de Bruin contributed to Smith's aquatic
achievements, and few observers doubt that he also contributed
to the veil of suspicion that envelops her now. In the minds of
many people, his sins became hers. You could not, however, tell
that to the crowd at Easons. In time, de Bruin was surrounded by
his own little congregation. He signed books. (He, too, dotted
the i in his first name with a little circle.) He posed for
pictures. He saw a little girl pouting, lifted her off the
ground as if he were retrieving a dropped pencil and took her to
his wife, thereby consoling the girl while making new fans. When
a Galway man wearing a soiled suit and a two-day beard prattled
on about his country's athletic triumphs, de Bruin, who speaks
fluent English, listened in a bemused, detached way. Finally the
man wrapped up: "From all of Ireland, thanks for what you've
done." De Bruin loathes the Irish inclination to incessant talk,
but in this instance he didn't appear relieved that the
conversation was over. He looked genuinely grateful for the
As the newlyweds--they were married last June 11 in Holland in a
civil ceremony sandwiched between morning and evening training
sessions--left the bookstore and headed for their hotel, Smith
was tired, perhaps slightly cranky. She had signed autographs
for longer than she had planned to, and the presence of a U.S.
reporter was unexpected. There might be a crowd of girls waiting
for her in the hotel lobby, the reporter suggested. "God," Smith
said, "I hope not."
Later they were interviewed while dining at the Jurys Galway
Inn. The reporter hoped to learn about Smith and de Bruin and
their training methods. Instead, Smith and de Bruin did three
hours of verbal tap dancing.
Briefly, they talked about Smith's physique. Since she has known
de Bruin, she has become significantly more muscular. (They met
in a dining hall at the 1992 Barcelona Games, at which Smith
performed without distinction and de Bruin not at all; he pulled
out a month beforehand, he said, because of lingering weakness
from glandular fever.) Comparing photographs of Smith in
Barcelona and Atlanta, one sees that over the four years between
those Olympics she lost much of her breast tissue; her arms and
shoulders grew substantially more muscled; and her face thinned.
She evolved from a "puppy dog," to use her words, to a "mature
woman," to use her husband's. Smith says the changes came from
following a regimen of weightlifting and an unspecified diet
prescribed by de Bruin.
"At the bookstore Erik was talking about the value of amino
acids," the reporter said. Smith had just put in an order for
pate, fried chicken, french fries and a Coke.
"Fatty acids," de Bruin corrected.
At the bookstore de Bruin had said he periodically tested
Smith's blood to make sure she was getting the right combination
of vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients from her diet. At
dinner, when the reporter asked Smith if athletes' blood should
be tested for banned substances, because that would provide much
more information about drug use than urine testing, she said, "I
faint every time I have to give a blood sample."
During dinner Smith frequently paid homage to her coach. She
made effusive references to "Erik's training methods"--without
describing them in any detail--and "Erik's experiences as a
world-class athlete." She said, "I knew I had the ability to
make the times I made in Atlanta, but I needed somebody to bring
them out of me." She also said, "Because Erik didn't learn
swimming technique out of a textbook, he could see swimming in a
As de Bruin spoke about that very topic, however, Smith seemed
uninterested. De Bruin said, "It just didn't make sense to me,
from a scientific point of view, that if the shortest distance
between point A and point B is a straight line, then why, in her
breaststroke, was she coming so far out of the water?"
Meanwhile, Smith's eyes wandered down to her fingernails and all
about the nearly empty dining room. Other conversational
De Bruin: "I told her, 'The Olympics are about who can handle
the pressure best.'"
Smith: "I'm five-three. I have small hands and feet. I'm not
built for swimming. But I don't think anyone worked harder than
me. We changed my diet, workweek, sleep, technique, mental
De Bruin: "Of course, we're not going to reveal the whole
package. That would be stupid."
Smith: "When I walked into the call room in Atlanta, I knew my
competitors were looking at me, and I was going to use that to
my advantage. I learned that from Erik."
De Bruin: "What's wrong with steroids? They're illegal. They're
on a list of drugs you cannot use."
Smith: "The things on that list are things that are potentially
De Bruin: "Anything done in excess is potentially harmful. You
could sit here and drink 50 cups of coffee, but I wouldn't
recommend it. I don't think you'd walk out of this room if you
Near the end of dinner, the reporter asked Smith whom else he
should interview in Ireland. Who in Ireland had shaped her
"Nobody," she said, answering slowly and surely, shaking her
The answer was not truthful; of course there are people in
Ireland who molded her swimming career. Chief among them were
her parents, Brian and Patricia, who transported Michelle to the
pool at 6 a.m. for years on end. But Michelle did not want her
parents interviewed. ("Any question about me they can answer, I
can answer," she said.) Once you know something about the Dublin
swimming community in the years that Smith was developing her
strokes, however, her desire to distance herself from her
swimming past becomes understandable.
When Smith was coming up, three men were dominant figures in
swimming in and around Dublin. One was Frank McCann, a manager
of the Irish national team and president of the Leinster
Swimming Association, which made him the top administrator for
swimming programs in Dublin. Another notable figure was Derry
O'Rourke, who coached Smith for most of her youth--she took up
competitive swimming at nine--and at the 1992 Olympics. The
third was George Gibney, the coach of the national team in the
'80s and of the Irish Olympic squad in '88. Smith, then 18, was
a member of the team that competed in Seoul.
McCann, 36, was sentenced last year to life in prison for the
1992 murders, by arson, of his 36-year-old wife, Esther, and
their 18-month-old niece. According to testimony at his trial,
McCann committed the murders because he did not want his wife to
find out why they had been turned down in their efforts to adopt
the niece. They had been rejected because, according to an
anonymous complaint filed with the Irish Adoption Board, Frank
McCann had impregnated a 17-year-old swimmer in 1987, while he
was married to Esther.
Gibney, 49, fled Ireland in 1994 after an investigation by a
leading Irish newspaper, The Sunday Tribune of Dublin, revealed
that he had repeatedly forced at least six young swimmers, both
boys and girls, to engage in sexual acts with him. The Tribune
investigation, for which Gibney's alleged victims signed sworn
affidavits, came after a probe of Gibney by the national police.
O'Rourke, 51, was arrested by police in Dublin in 1996 on
charges that in the previous decade he had committed the
statutory rape of nine female swimmers under the age of 17. The
police have sworn statements from the alleged victims. The Irish
courts recently decided that O'Rourke, who was not held in
custody, should stand trial.
In the interview over dinner, Smith politely but firmly declined
to discuss Gibney, McCann or O'Rourke. In Gold, she writes of
Gibney's alleged rapes and molestations: "I had had no personal
experience of any such incidents." She makes no mention of
McCann, and there is no reason to suspect he had an improper
relationship with her. The behavior of O'Rourke did concern
Smith's parents. Brian told police that O'Rourke had made
tasteless and sexually suggestive comments to the second of his
three daughters, Sarah, but that he had never done or said
anything inappropriate to Michelle, the eldest daughter. Four
people who know Michelle well--and few can make that claim--say
it is unlikely that O'Rourke approached her sexually. They say
she was too strong-willed and strong-minded to become a victim
of sexual misconduct.
"Smith came up in a swimming system that was rife with hatred
because of people covering up the misdeeds of other people,"
says prominent Irish coach and former swimmer Francis (Chalkie)
White. "She had a tough time, but it made her an even more
determined character. There were three unhealthy men in
important positions. She may have known it, she may have only
sensed it. But it explains why she would adopt her boyfriend as
her [only] coach. She needed to know she could trust her coach."
She also needed to get out of Ireland, as many of her driven
countrymen do. In 1987, when she was 17, Smith moved to Calgary
to train with a highly regarded Canadian coach, Deryk Snelling.
Two years later she accepted a swimming scholarship at the
University of Houston. She left more than a semester short of
graduation, at odds with her coach, Phill Hansel, and wanting to
be with de Bruin, who was in Holland. Over 3 1/2 years of
on-and-off enrollment at Houston, she was All-America once--in
the 400-meter individual medley in the fall of 1991--but never
won a Southwest Conference championship in any event.
Smith trained for the 1996 Olympics in Holland and in Fort
Lauderdale. When she and de Bruin go to Ireland these days, they
stay with friends and don't see Smith's parents much.
There are some signs of coolness between Michelle and her
parents. Brian, a small, feisty man who owns an auto parts
store, and Patricia, a devout Catholic and skillful
watercolorist who has dedicated herself to raising her children,
are prominent in Gold but were never interviewed for the book.
Asked what kinds of foods her parents, two younger sisters and
younger brother eat in the kitchen of their suburban Dublin
home, Michelle answered, "I can't tell you, it's been so long
since I've eaten there."
Still, Brian and Patricia are fiercely proud and protective of
Michelle. They are certain that she told the truth when she said
in Atlanta that she has never used banned performance-enhancing
substances. As for their son-in-law, they believe he's clean
too. De Bruin has told them he was framed by the late Manfred
Donike, the German biochemist who ran the drug-testing lab used
by the International Olympic Committee in Cologne and conducted
the test in which de Bruin came up positive. Patricia and Brian
know de Bruin is arrogant, and they've learned to accept it. "He
lives for himself, and he lives for Michelle, and he doesn't
give a crap about anything else," Brian said one afternoon last
fall as he sat at home, a cup of hot tea resting on his knee.
Brian and Patricia seem so decent and accommodating that one
wants to believe everything they say and, by extension,
everything their eldest child says. One's impulse is to dismiss
the single moment in a long conversation when they are evasive.
The senior Smiths are good with dates and facts. They know to
the month when Michelle left for Calgary, when she returned from
Houston, when she quit the Terenure Swim Club in Dublin and
joined the King's Hospital Swim Club. They say that in 1993
Michelle spent a long period in their house recuperating from
glandular fever, which caused her to miss all of that year's big
international meets. But they can't tell you what month, or
months, she was home. "I'm someone who looks forward, not back,"
Brian says, explaining his haziness on the question.
The response is troubling because De Bruin, as noted above,
cited the disease as not only the reason he pulled out of the
1992 Olympics but also the reason he tested as having excessive
testosterone the next year.
It is, of course, possible that glandular fever wiped out
Smith's 1993 season and that her boyfriend had the fever too.
But if Smith was suffering from the illness that year, how is it
that by the time she returned to the pool, her body had become
much stronger and more defined, as Irish swimmer Gary O'Toole,
among others, observed? And how is it that in '94, the year
after her supposedly protracted recuperation, she improved
enough to move into the top 25 in the world in two events?
Given that de Bruin is Smith's coach, it would be remiss not to
note what he said about performance-enhancing drugs in a 1993
interview in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: "Who says doping
is unethical? Who decides what is 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."
Those words say nothing specifically about Smith. But it is true
that in the Netherlands, where Smith has spent much of her time
since 1993, steroids, testosterone and human growth hormone
(hGH), all of which can help an athlete train harder and build
muscle more efficiently, can be purchased cheaply and easily.
That, of course, does not mean that Smith bought any.
Another truth is that before Smith, no world-class woman swimmer
had ever been exceedingly faster at 26 than she was at 22.
Smith's improvement in the 400-meter individual medley is
remarkable. In 1992 her best time was 4:58.94. In '93 it was
4:57.17. In '94 it was 4:47.89. In '95 it was 4:42.81. In
Atlanta, it was 4:39.18. That's an immense, 20-second
improvement in four years, nine seconds in '93 and '94 alone.
Then there's the 400 freestyle. Smith had never even swum the
event in international competition before '96. In Atlanta she
swam it in 4:07.25, the ninth best time ever by a woman. But
none of this precludes the possibility that Smith found novel
but legal training methods that, as scientists say, pushed the
There is other information that casts doubt on Smith's
assertions that she is drug-free. When Irish reporters wanted to
reach Smith for interviews last May, two months before the
Olympics, they were told by Kathy Stapleton, who was then
Smith's agent, that Smith was unavailable because she was at a
"clinic" in Eastern Europe or an "academy in Moscow." Smith, who
was presumably aware that some clinics in Eastern Europe and
hospitals in Moscow have well-earned reputations for providing
banned substances to patients, later contradicted her agent in
statements to Irish reporters. Smith says she was in Holland at
Smith's whereabouts were sometimes unknown in the year leading
up to the Atlanta Games. She left confusing information about
where she was staying, thereby frustrating the efforts of
drug-test administrators to periodically collect urine samples
from her as part of their random, out-of-competition testing
program. Her elusiveness continued after the Olympics. According
to forms Smith filled out, she was supposed to be available for
out-of-competition testing in Ireland on Oct. 13. But testers
could not find her during the day. The international swimming
authority, FINA, wrote the Irish Amateur Swimming Association
(IASA) in January and warned that any swimmer who is unavailable
for out-of-competition testing more than two times faces
suspension. Smith competed in no important meets in the months
before the Atlanta Games but instead prepared for the Olympics
at a series of small events in Holland, France and the U.S. at
which no drug testing took place.
So what can be concluded about Michelle Smith? The case is one
in which, as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once
said, reasonable men may differ. Reasonable people have examined
the evidence, all of it circumstantial, and decided that Smith
used performance-enhancing drugs. Last January, Sean Gordon, a
longtime official of the IASA, refused nomination for another
term in his position after the IASA proposed a high honor, Life
Membership, for Smith. "In view of the fact that many of us, if
not all of us, have expressed everything from concern to
indignation and indeed amusement at the probability that
Leinster and King's Hospital swimmer Michelle Smith has been
using performance-enhancing drugs for a number of years, it now
seems ironic to propose Life Membership in the IASA for this
swimmer," Gordon said. (Smith had her lawyer send a letter to
the IASA declining Life Membership until the organization
determined who within its ranks had told reporters that she had
not been available for out-of-competition drug tests before the
Others have been more inclined to take a charitable view of
Smith. President Clinton, for one, advised her in Atlanta not to
pay attention to all the "crap" in the newspapers. And it is
possible that, whether or not Smith used illicit
performance-enhancing drugs, some of her Olympic opponents did.
That can't be known, because the International Olympic
Committee's drug-testing techniques can't detect most of the
banned substances athletes are using.
Does Smith deserve the benefit of the doubt? To say no is to
call her a liar. To say she does not deserve the benefit of the
doubt is to say that the limits of nondrug-aided human
performance are known. And if those limits are known, then sport
is dying, or already dead.
Smith, the most accomplished of Irish athletes, competed for the
second time since the Olympics in a small competition in Galway
the first weekend in March. She set a national short-course
record of 2:01.38 in the 200-meter freestyle. She took a prerace
drug test--and promptly declined to talk with reporters about
drugs. "I would like to restrict questions to my swimming," she
said. "Any other questions can be dealt with through my
She is skipping the short-course world championships in
Goteborg, Sweden, this month, and she may pass up the European
championships in Seville, Spain, in August. "I'm not the woman I
was in Atlanta," she said. She is, however, considering
competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Since Atlanta, de Bruin has become interested in working with a
new group of athletes. He says he wants to see if the training
methods he devised for Smith can be applied to racehorses.
It's just an idea. He doesn't know a thing about the sport. But
that hasn't stopped him in the past.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILLY STICKLAND/INPHO [Michelle Smith's head half-submerged in water]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [Michelle Smith diving into swimming pool]
COLOR PHOTO: MATT BROWNE/INPHO EIGHT MONTHS AFTER HER TRIUMPHS IN ATLANTA, SMITH IS VIRTUALLY IGNORED OUTSIDE HER SPORT [Michelle Smith holding four Olympic medals]
COLOR PHOTO: SHAUN BOTTERILL/ALLSPORT DE BRUIN ONCE ASKED, "WHO SAYS DOPING IS UNETHICAL? WHO DECIDES? SPORT IS BY DEFINITION DISHONEST" [Michelle Smith and Erik de Bruin]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER AMONG WORLD-CLASS WOMEN SWIMMERS, NO ONE HAD EVER BEEN EXCEEDINGLY FASTER AT AGE 26 THAN AT 22 [Michelle Smith in swimming pool]
EITHER HER REPUTATION AND ACHIEVEMENTS HAVE BEEN CRUELLY
MALIGNED, OR SHE HAS PERPETRATED A FRAUD