Keeping Up With Smith


Curiously, bronze medalist Lin Li sat on the podium and didn't answer any questions about performance-enhancing drugs or the present shortcomings and past glories of the Chinese women's swimming team.

For once, the Chinese swimmers were out of the firing line.

Instead, the questions, allegations and expressions of support were being directed at Ireland's Michelle Smith in every possible form.

Unexpected success breeds suspicion, and Smith has plenty of both, as she won her third consecutive gold medal at the Olympics. An ailing shoulder almost caused Smith to withdraw from the women's 200 individual medley finals, but she saw the slow times at the morning preliminaries and the gold-medal opening was there.

From Lane 1, Smith won with a furious freestyle charge in the final 50 meters, rallying from fourth place as she won the event in 2 minutes 13.93 seconds. Marianne Limpert of Canada was a surprise silver medalist in 2:14.35, and Lin went 2:14.74 to take the bronze. Lin, the world-record holder, had won the 200 IM at Barcelona. American Allison Wagner was a disappointing sixth.

Minutes after the race, the expected exchange of words began, spurred on by the Americans.

"Well, I think we've given the benefit of the doubt in this sport for 30 years," said Richard Quick, the U.S. women's coach. "It's time to take a very close look into that rate of improvement. Every great performance in swimming today has a cloud around it. That's true of every great performance in sports these days, and it's a sad state of affairs. It [drug testing] is the most critical issue that faces our sport."

Said Australia's Ellie Overton, who finished fifth: "If she's drug-free, she's the most amazing female athlete since Kristin Otto."

Otto, representing the former East Germany, won four individual gold medals in 1988--the 50- and 100-meter freestyles, the 100 backstroke and the 100 butterfly. Smith, 26, could join her lofty company if she should win her final event of the Olympics, the 200 butterfly on Friday.

What should be a proud, joyous moment for Ireland instead has become a raging controversy with no sign of settling down. In less than a week, Smith has become the most successful and embattled female Irish athlete.

The impact of putting her country on the international sporting map in such a singular fashion has not hit her.

"It's not sinking in, not at the moment," she said. "After I won the first medal, I was so thrilled that I had achieved the ultimate and that's the gold medal. Whatever I did the rest of the week, I was just going to enjoy myself."

Along with the three gold medals, pushing the issue into the forefront is Smith's rapid rate of progress. The fact that she is married to her coach, Erik de Bruin, a former star Dutch discus thrower who was once suspended for testing positive, has raised further doubts about her sudden improvement.

For instance, she was ranked 24th in the world in the 200 IM and much lower in the other two events she won at the Olympics, the 400 IM and the 400 freestyle.

At one point during an intense news conference Smith was asked point blank whether she had ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

"No, I have never used performance-enhancing drugs," she said, smiling.

Smith, patiently, continued to present her case in forceful fashion.

"I just have to laugh at it because at the end of the day you just have to--every time I'm tested, it's always negative and I've been tested again and again," Smith said. "For every one time a person on the U.S. team is tested, I'm tested five times."

She compared herself to American star Janet Evans, who won three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics.

"If you look at the events Janet swam in 1988, she won the 400 IM, the 400 freestyle and she went on to win the 800," Smith said. "In the 400 freestyle, her time was 4:03 and my winning time was 4:07. Yet she maintains she is drug free, but she was swimming faster than me.

"So, if I was taking drugs, then surely I should be swimming faster than 4:03."

Those around Smith are trying to protect her, but she has shown no inclination to back off under the intense scrutiny. Her manager, Kathy Stapleton, has taken to hiding the newspapers from Smith.

"At the end of the day, whoever comes out more powerful in the water, that's all that matters," Stapleton said. "I don't understand all these people talking, what they're talking about. This is a perfect place with perfect testing and perfect rules. We have done nothing wrong."

American Angel Martino, who tested positive in 1988, said this is what it has come to in sports, especially swimming.

"It's sad--it happens every time when someone swims fast," she said "You should just assume she's swimming great."

* BILL PLASCHKE: U.S. team swims through FINA loophole to win 400-meter medley relay. S2

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