Two days after becoming Ireland's first swimming gold medallist, Michelle Smith found herself involved in a massive confrontation with the United States team yesterday. Not only did they want her excluded from the 400 metres freestyle, but the quadruple gold medallist Janet Evans said also that questions were being asked about whether her rival is on drugs.
The argument broke out after Smith was included in yesterday's heats despite failing to set a qualifying time by the cut-off date on 15 July. The Americans were furious, but their anger intensified when Evans missed out on a place in the final by one position. The fact that Smith had qualified for the final - in effect taking the home girl's place - with the second- fastest time did not ease the situation.
"It's another disgusting example of politics in sport," Mark Schubert, the US women's assistant coach and Evans' personal mentor, 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 take two views on this: either you play by the rules or you say the Olympics is the place the best athletes should compete. Me? I feel you should 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 with a time that was 19 seconds faster than her time in Barcelona four years previously, and the Chinese, who are frequently under the suspicion 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. If you're asking me if there's the accusation out there then the answer is yes."
The Irish reaction was one of indignation. Pat Hickey, president of the Irish Olympic Committee, 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 that Michelle is clean. I'm astounded by the accusation."
Dermot Sherlock, general secretary of the Irish Olympic Committee, said the Americans, having failed to have Smith excluded, were trying to switch attention to drugs.
"It's disgraceful of them. I come from a country that has very strong libel and slander laws and you cannot accuse someone unless you have the evidence. Until it's there you are wide open to legal action. She has been tested a least half a dozen times already this year in Ireland."
Smith has emphatically denied the allegations. "I've been tested three times in training already this year," she said a month before the Olympics. "I must be the most tested athlete in Ireland."
To gauge the Americans' anger yesterday it is necessary to understand where Evans stands among their sporting deities. Behind Mark Spitz, certainly, but not so far as you would notice.
She is the all-American girl that all America wants to win in Atlanta, and such is her standing she was the natural choice to carry the torch up the steps to the waiting Muhammad Ali at the opening ceremony. A path was being lit to where she would win at least another gold to push her alongside the speed skater Bonnie Blair as the American woman with the heaviest gilt edge.
Then Smith intruded on the scene with her devastating win in the medley. Fine, the Americans thought, 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 IOC ruled otherwise. Overturning a decision by Fina, swimming's governing body, the IOC accepted there had been a mix- up over the dates that had originated in Atlanta and allowed Smith's 4min 08.86sec recorded after 15 July to stand.
Evans, the world record holder, had expected to be among the medallists, at least, but she had a dreadful swim, trailing 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."
Amid the arguments, Britain's Sarah Hardcastle was in the heat between Evans and Smith but in a different world in terms of speed. Nevertheless her 4:14.50 was the fastest she has swum over the distance in a morning and it encouraged her for her best event, the 800m tomorrow.
"It was a good time for me and Hayley Lewis, who is one of the big threats in the 800, didn't perform that well," she said. "If I can step up the endurance work over the next few days I'll be fine."
Asked about the mood in the British camp after a less than scintillating start to the Games, she said. "Generally it's really good. OK, we haven't won any medals but there have been a few personal bests and you can't really ask any more from people."
Certainly not from James Hickman, who reached the final of the 200m butterfly beating the world record holder, Russia's Denis Pankratov, while setting a British record of 1:58.16.
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