Swimming: De Bruin races to second gold

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Just as the European Championships burst into life on the second day of competition here yesterday, Ireland's Michelle de Bruin, formerly Michelle Smith, threatened to suffocate them.

Britain won their second gold in the men's 4x200m freestyle relay and set two British records but the controversy surrounding De Bruin continues to dominate the championships. Yesterday she won her second title in the women's 200m freestyle and appears unstoppable in her march towards an unprecedented five gold medals.

Such is the speculation of drug use that national records of other participating countries have been overshadowed. De Bruin, who has always denied using drugs and has never failed a drugs test, has been the centre of controversy ever since winning three Olympic gold medals in Atlanta. It has also been suggested that she is a puppet to her husband, Erik.

The saga began here on Sunday when Erik was called before LEN, the European governing body, to answer allegations that he fraudulently gained access to doping control in Vienna two years ago. On Monday Michelle was not allowed to enter one event (her entry was after the deadline) and withdrew from another. On the same day all her entry times were thrown out because they were done more than 12 months ago, so she has to swim in the slowest heat of each of her events.

Then Erik, himself banned from international athletics for a positive drug test in 1993, issued a lengthy solicitor's letter to a Canadian journalist demanding an explanation and apology for remarks made on radio in Ireland in July.

After her first gold medal on the opening day of competition, Michelle failed to turn up for an official press conference which is required of all medallists in Seville. Yesterday she was warned by LEN that she must attend future press conferences.

On Monday a spontaneous press crowd had gathered around her outside doping control; when Erik had decided enough was enough, he picked up her bags and pulled her away. Her mandatory meeting with the press after her victory yesterday was banal. No, she was not surprised by the result, and yes, she was delighted by the win. It was swiftly wound up by her husband.

The reason for the controversy is that her spectacular progress since meeting Erik de Bruin in 1993 has been beyond the belief of some observers. In the 400m individual medley, for example, she improved 5.32sec between 1988 and 1992 to a modest 4:47.89; after meeting Erik, in 1993 she improved by 17.27sec in less than two years to become Olympic champion. In a 26- year-old who has competed in two previous Olympics it is unheard of.

Added to this she did not comply with out-of-competition drug-testing protocols, failing to provide details of her whereabouts and was unavailable for testing in October 1995 and again in 1996. After a written warning to the Irish Amateur Swimming Association in January this year, speculation grew that she would be banned when it happened again in February.

No doubt Michelle de Bruin's clouds will have a golden lining this week, and there is a golden glow breaking over the British squad, too. The men's 4x200m freestyle relay team were jubilant after Paul Palmer added the team gold to the one he won on Tuesday. Before the race, Jamie Salter, who missed an individual bronze by one-hundredth of a second, said he would be giving everything to win a gold. His phenomenal final leg of 1:48.45 overhauled a deficit of almost a second to take Britain's first medal in this event since 1938.

Also in record-breaking form was Jamie King, Palmer's team-mate from Bath, recording a time of 2:29.91 from the heats in the 200m breaststroke.

The man of the day today will be the Russian, Alex Popov. The first man to retain the Olympic 100m freestyle title since Johnny Weismuller, Popov is returning to international competition after nearly losing his life when stabbed in a Moscow street market last August.