Away from Atlanta's cesspit of innuendo

BOOK OF THE WEEK; Gold by Michelle Smith and Cathal Dervan (Mainstream, pounds 14.99)
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The Independent Online
Amid the atmosphere of innuendo and suspicion that accompanied Michelle Smith's winning of four medals at Atlanta, one question asked at a rowdy press conference comes to mind: "Does no one believe in fairy stories any more?"

The woman on her way to becoming the greatest Irish Olympian in history was more flummoxed by that than the less subtle "Have you ever taken performance- enhancing drugs?", which she dismissed in the same manner that she expels water from her mouth. "I don't understand your question," she said, moving on to face the jury before her.

Reading her book and the answer becomes apparent. Ireland might subscribe to higher influences after watching their golden belle shoot through the Olympic pool like a torpedo, but she believes in earthier reasons. Like hard work and diet, and the coaching of her husband, Erik de Bruin.

Other women have come back from Olympic Games with a fistful of gold, but few have had to float above the hysterical debate like Smith. From the moment Janet Evans said other swimmers were questioning whether anyone could come from nowhere to win Olympic titles without the use of drugs, her story took on dimensions that took it way beyond Atlanta.

Evans, a quadruple gold medallist herself, sank like a stone in Georgia when she had been expected to be the golden girl, but she went causing ripples the size of waves. A rift was cut in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre that formed on national lines. American journalists believed Evans; the rest of the world studied Smith's exemplary responses under rigorous questioning and went the other way.

Rumours had a vigorous momentum of their own and one morning angry and harassed Irish officials had to parry fables ranging from Smith failing a drugs test to her pulling out of the Games altogether.

Irish-Americans, meanwhile, were aghast at her treatment, and Bill Clinton made a point of securing their votes by apologising for the "crap" she was getting from the American media. He might have pointed a finger at Evans but in election year that would have been a greater miracle than what was going on in the pool.

The book fails to capture the full fever of those hours because Smith was protected from it while her joint-author was in West Cork at the time. Conversely, it would have been impossible to feel the pulse beating in Ireland as gold after gold was won if Dervan had been in Atlanta. You gain as well as lose.

Criticism is futile anyway. Even if this book had fallen far short of the standard it does set, it would still sell like Guinness in Ireland. Sporting legends do not derive from the Emerald Isle very often and she is the greatest of them all.

Guy Hodgson


1 Muhammad Ali: In Perspective, Thomas Hauser (Collins; paperback, pounds 16.99)

2 The Lad Done Bad - Sex, Sleaze and Scandal in English Football, Denis Campbell, Pete May and Andrew Shields (Penguin; paperback, pounds 9.99)

3 BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Yearbook 1997, edited by Peter Nichols (Oddball Publishing; paperback, pounds 12.99)

4 The Rugby War, Peter Fitzsimons (Harper Sports; paperback, pounds 9.99)

5 Terminator - the Authorised Julian Dicks Story, Kirk Blows (Polar Print; paperback, pounds 9.99)

6 From `Fergie Out!' to the Double Double - the Highs and Lows of Life as a Red, edited by Paul Davies (A & C Publishing; paperback, pounds 7.99)

7 Steve Waugh's World Cup Diary, Steve Waugh (Harper Sports; paperback, pounds 10.99)

8 A Long Time Gone, Chris Pitt (Portway Press; hardback, pounds 26.00).

9 Holyfield - The Humble Warrior, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Holyfield (Thomas Nelson; hardback, pounds 9.99)

10 The Racing Post Flat Form Book 1996, (Racing Post; hardback, pounds 25.00)

List compiled by Sportspages Bookshops, 94-96 Charing Cross Road, London, 0171 240 9604; and St Ann's Square, Manchester, 0161 832 8530.