Swimming: De Bruin given four-year ban

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MICHELLE DE BRUIN, the golden girl of the Atlanta Olympics, was banned from swimming for four years yesterday after being found guilty of tampering with a drug test. At 28 her career has ended in disgrace.

De Bruin, who won three golds and a bronze in the 1996 Games as Michelle Smith, was suspended by Fina, the governing body of international swimming, after a hearing last month had initially failed to reach a decision on her future.

It proved to be merely a stay of execution because yesterday she was found guilty of adding alcohol to the urine specimen she gave on 10 January at Kilkenny and given the maximum punishment within Fina's discretion.

Enough alcohol showed up in each of the two tests on the sample, said the head of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission, Prince Alexandre de Merode, to have been fatal if it had come through the human system in the normal way.

De Bruin, who had denied the charge and said any tampering with the sample must have taken place after it was out of her sight, will attend a hastily arranged press conference with her solicitor, Peter Lennon, in Dublin today, when she is expected to announce her intention to appeal against the decision.

When news of the ban broke, the swimmer was at the Dublin Horse Show, working for a television company. She posed for photographs with a smile but did not comment on the decision.

Ireland's Sports Minister, Jim McDaid, said he was "saddened and disappointed" at the decision to ban her and hoped Smith could prove her innocence.

Fina regulations state that all competition results in the six months before a positive test must be annulled, which means De Bruin could be stripped of the two gold and two silver medals that she won at the European Championships in Seville last summer. Karen Pickering, the British Olympic swimmer who competed against De Bruin at Seville, applauded Fina's tough stance, because "it might put other people off doing the same thing."

De Bruin's Olympic medals, the first Ireland had won in swimming, are not in jeopardy. However, it was at Atlanta that suspicions about De Bruin first surfaced when Janet Evans, an American swimmer, said the Irishwoman's remarkable improvement had led to talk about stimulants among her rivals.

The chequered past of De Bruin's Dutch husband and coach, Erik de Bruin, a former discus thrower who was once banned for four years after a positive drugs test, added to a cloud of suspicion surrounding her and she was bombarded with questions, particularly from the American media.

"I told them it was downright stupid to take drugs," she wrote in her autobiography Gold. "I've said that many times in the past. I have never used drugs, I have never been tempted."

During a series of press conferences, she described herself as the "most tested athlete in the world", attributing her progress to her husband introducing her to training methods from track and field, which increased her stamina, she said. It certainly required remarkable strength of mind to prosper in the pool amid the controversy, winning golds in the 400m medley, 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley and a bronze in 200m butterfly.

Even though her countrymen provided constant support throughout, it was pertinent that she failed to win the advertising endorsements you would expect for the most successful athlete in the nation's history. The shadow of suspicion was strong enough even in Ireland.

Athletes fined, page 23

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