Swimming: Smith takes gold despite drug slur

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The Independent Online
Michelle Smith claimed a second gold medal of the Centennial Games last night and still left the Olympic pool under a cloud. In an extraordinary day an attempt was made to exclude the new heroine of Ireland from the 400 metres freestyle, while the quad- ruple gold medallist Janet Evans said questions were being asked about whether she is on drugs.

An argument broke out after Smith was included in yesterday's heats despite failing to set a qualifying time by the cut-off date of 5 July. The Americans, backed by the Germans and Australians, were furious but their anger intensified when Evans missed a place in the final by one position. The fact that Smith had qualified - in effect taking the home girl's place - did not ease the situation.

"It's another disgusting example of politics in sport," Mark Schubert, the US women's assistant coach, said. "I can think of many times when we had kids get hurt or sick, and we were never allowed to change."

Evans was equally angry. "The decision is absolutely wrong," she said. "You can look at it both ways: either she didn't play by the rules or you look at it that the Olympics are supposed to be about the best athletes in the world. Me? In life you're supposed to play by the rules."

Told that Smith had considered it unfair that the US team has tried to have her ejected from the event, she added: "If she had qualified for the Games like everyone else did she wouldn't have thought it was fair she was allowed to race either."

A comparison was made between Smith, who won the 400m individual medley on Saturday in a time that was 19 seconds faster than her time in Barcelona, and the Chinese who the Americans have accused of taking artificial stimulants.

"Are you asking me if she's on drugs?" Evans replied. "Any time someone has a dramatic improvement there's that question. I have heard that question posed in the last few weeks about that swimmer. If you're asking if the accusations are out there, I would say yes."

The Irish reaction to the US protests was indignation. Pat Hickey, president of the Irish Olympic Council, said: "They are jealous that a little country like Ireland took a gold medal off them. The Americans are doing all they can to get Michelle Smith thrown out.

"I think it's scandalous behaviour. It is clear that it was an Olympic organisational mistake but they [the Americans] wouldn't accept that. As for the suggestion she is on drugs, I have no doubt Michelle is clean. I'm astounded by the accusation."

Dermot Sherlock, the Irish Olympic general secretary, said the Americans, having failed to have Smith excluded, were trying to switch attention to drugs. "I come from a country that has very strong libel and slander laws and you cannot accuse someone unless you have evidence. Until it's there you are wide open to legal action. She's been tested a least half a dozen times. In Ireland she was randomnly tested walking off from a studio at a national television programme without any prior knowledge by the Olympic Council's medical doctor.

"It is supposition and rumour and unfortunatley the media, maybe for good reasons of working and getting information, have to pass on things that have no substance and fact at this stage."

But if Irish words were blazing, Smith also had a stinging retort in last night's final. Having qualified in second place, she dominated the race with a devastating swim, clocking 4:07.25, the fastest in the world this year.

Behind after 100 metres, she took the lead at the half-way mark, surging to an advantage of about four yards after 300 metres. The field came back at her over the final length but even so her winning margin was over a second. Dagmar Hase, of Germany, was second in 4:08.03, while Kirsten Vlieghuis of the Netherlands took the bronze in 4:08.07.

"The world's best were here and on the day I beat them," Smith said afterwards. "It's no surprise for me. I've been doing these times in practice."

On the subject of drugs, she added: "I think it's really funny. I'm the most tested athlete in Ireland. In May and June the IOC tested me and Fina [the world governing body] were at my door three times. All I can say is just look at all my drug tests."

To gauge the Americans' anger yesterday it is necessary to understand where Evans stands among their sporting deities. Behind Mark Spitz, certainly, but not far. She is the all-American girl that all America wants to win in Atlanta and she was the natural choice to carry the torch at the finale of the opening ceremony. A path was being lit to at least another gold to push her alongside the speed-skater Bonnie Blair as the greatest American female Olympian ever.

Then Smith intruded on the scene with her devastating win in the medley. But Ireland's new heroine had not clocked a fast enough time in the freestyle to reign on Evans' parade. That is what they believed; the International Olympic Committee ruled otherwise. Overturning a decision by Fina, the IOC accepted there had been a mix-up over the dates that had originated in Atlanta and allowed Smith's 4:08.86 recorded after 15 July to stand.

Evans, the world record holder, had expected to be among the medallists, at least, but she trailed in behind Claudia Poll, the winner of the 200m freestyle the previous evening, clocking only 4:13.60. That was 0.02sec too slow to make the final. "I miscalculated," Evans, who also swims in the 800m, admitted. "I thought 4:13 would be good enough."

More reports, pages 24 and 25

Results, page 25