Smith's perfect riposte

OLYMPIC GAMES Guy Hodgson on American attempts to discredit another superb display from a popular Irish swimmer
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The Independent Online
If you had asked beforehand who would become a figure of rampant conjecture in the opening week of the Olympics not many people would have plumped for a 26-year-old Irish woman. A Chinese girl, maybe, or perhaps a weightlifter sent home for steroid abuse, but a red-haired unknown from just outside Dublin?

By even the hassle-strewn, temper-testing standards of the Atlanta Games, Monday was an extraordinary day in the life of a hitherto nobody. At 3am Irish officials were still arguing Michelle Smith's rights to swim in the 400 metres freestyle, 17 hours later she had won her second gold medal in three days.

In between Janet Evans, an American icon so unsullied she had been chosen to carry the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony, had flung in a verbal hand-grenade. Was Smith on drugs? "If you're asking are the accusations out there," the four-times gold medallist had replied, "I would say yes they are.''

Coming on top of the Americans' attempt to have Smith excluded because of a mix-up in entry time dates originating in Atlanta, the furore propelled Ireland's latest sporting heroine to the top of the Olympic agenda.

It left Smith bemused but calm. Indeed, in the press conference after the freestyle, she gave a near faultless performance and many doubters were swung over by her simple plea of innocence. "I put my heart and soul into this," she pleaded. "All I do is eat, sleep and train and this is the culmination of it all. It's the result of hard work, that's all.''

It was evident where the chasm in belief lay. The Americans, long since scotchers of fairy stories, looked at Smith's improvement from an also- swam in Barcelona to a champion and were sceptical. Most of the rest of the world, perhaps spurred by a chance to get back at the hosts for a chaotic Games, lined up on the other side.

One Australian journalist described the American attitude as "ungracious" and the Canadian assistant coach, Deryk Snelling, who has worked with Smith, warned: "I've never seen a tougher girl. I'd be very careful about saying she's doing anything illegal." The Irish, meanwhile, are furious that she is being questioned.

Smith's father, Brian, said he was disgusted about what Evans had said about his daughter. "I looked up to her," he said. "I thought she was one of America's national treasures. To lower herself in that manner is beneath her as a gold medallist.''

At least the consensus-splitting subject of the controversy stayed above the simmering arguments, merely saying that she had been disappointed by Evans's comments. "To my fellow competitors in Europe my success is not a surprise," Smith commented. "They've seen my improvement."

In the freestyle final Smith was aware the Americans had attempted to have her excluded, but the drugs comments had been kept away from her. Unfettered by this latter worry, her race was a commanding one. She took the lead half-way through and never looked likely to be caught. Her time, 2min 07.25sec, was the fastest in the world this year.

"In the Olympics", she said, "there's supposed to be a spirit of fair play and I don't think it's playing fair if you are trying to disqualify a competitor. When it comes down to it I'm a fighter. If people puts obstacles in my way it just makes me more determined.

"One of the things that makes me very proud is that Ireland hasn't a tradition in swimming. We also don't have great facilities, we don't have a 50- metre pool. To make it to this level I had to overcome things. I had to move to Holland, to move away from my family. I had to make sacrifices.''

Asked about the questions about drugs, she pointed out she had been tested four times in May and June alone, including once when she was leaving a television studio in Ireland after giving an interview. "My answer is: look at my drug tests," she said.

"I think it would be really stupid of me to take drugs. When you're in the top 20 you're subject to testing at any time. I was sitting at home at 9 o'clock one Sunday morning when the Fina people [from swimming's governing body] came to my house looking for a urine sample. You're not going to be that stupid.''

Just once Smith's serenity faltered and that followed a question about her husband, Eric de Bruin, a Dutch discus thrower, and his ban for taking steroids. "I just want to talk about my swimming," she said, her face hardening. The change, the edge in her voice, endorsed her previous easy denials rather than undermined them.

She should worry. Smith needed only to look at NBC's prime-time television coverage to see she had landed the perfect retort. Surrounding her race on Monday night there were advertisements for a truck endorsed by a person who had missed out on the final. That person was Janet Evans.

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