For Evans, disappointment turns bitter After failure in 400, swimmer, U.S. coaches upset at Ireland's Smith

Atlanta Olympics

July 23, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- It was not a very good day for America's Olympic sweetheart. Janet Evans' much-publicized quest for another Olympic medal in the 400-meter freestyle ended in bitter disappointment and international controversy yesterday morning at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

Evans made a strategic error in her preliminary heat and assumed her second-place finish would be good enough to get her into last night's final. Instead, she finished ninth in the prelims -- the top eight advance -- and missed the medal race while the U.S. coaching staff fumed over an International Olympic Committee decision that allowed Ireland's Michelle Smith to compete after missing the event's entry deadline.

Smith, who won a gold medal in the 400 individual medley Saturday, qualified second in the preliminaries and went on to capture the gold medal last night. She pulled away to win in 4 minutes, 07.25 seconds. Dagmar Hase of Germany won the silver in 4: 08.30.

Smith's victory was a bitter pill for Evans, who presumably would have made the final if the IOC had upheld a decision by the international swimming federation (FINA) and forced Smith to abide by the qualifying rules. Evans holds the world record in the event, 4: 03.85, set in 1988 at Seoul.

"You can look at it two ways," said Evans, her voice cracking during an afternoon news conference. "You can look at it as it's not fair, because it isn't fair. She didn't play by the rules. But the Olympics are about the best athletes."

Pressed to choose one of those two outlooks, Evans made it clear that she felt victimized by the seemingly arbitrary IOC decision and yesterday's ruling by the International Court of Arbitration of Sport that allowed it to stand.

"Being someone who plays by the rules, I think that you should have to play by the rules," she said, "but life's not fair."

Evans didn't help the situation by swimming her heat in 4: 13.60 -- more than four seconds slower than the top qualifier -- and said she had miscalculated the effort she would need to reach the final.

"I felt pretty good for a morning swim, and usually a second-place finish in the prelims will get you into the finals," Evans said. "I just have to put this behind me and focus on the 800-meter [freestyle, with prelims tomorrow]."

Smith, 26, has come out of nowhere to become one of the premier multi-event swimmers at this Olympiad, raising suspicion among some of her fellow swimmers that she may have used performance-enhancing drugs. She has improved her best time in the 400 IM by 20 seconds since the '92 Olympics, and may be the victim of guilt by association because her coach and husband, Erik DeBruin, was prominent in a steroid controversy in 1993.

Evans, 24, tried to tap-dance through a minefield of steroid-related questions, but acknowledged that Smith's dramatic improvement in several events leaves room to wonder.

"I think any time a person from any country shows dramatic improvement, there is that question," Evans said. "I've heard that question about this swimmer, but you can't make false accusations. If you're asking me if the accusations are out there, yes, they are, but I'm not endorsing them."

Smith swam a solid 4: 09.00 to finish behind Germany's Kerstin Kielgass in the preliminary heats, then criticized those who called for her to be disqualified.

"I am actually disappointed," Smith said. "You know in the Olympic Games you are supposed to have a spirit of fair play, and I don't think it is playing fair if you are trying to disqualify a competitor. If you are a good competitor, you take on all comers on the day. If you win a medal because you've disqualified one of your competitors, then you can't really feel you deserve it."

The whole episode had to be particularly galling for Evans' coach, Olympic assistant and USC head coach Mark Schubert, who saw one of his other swimmers -- Kristine Quance -- dropped from her best event during the U.S. Olympic trials because of a slight turn violation in the 400 IM.

In that case, U.S. Swimming abided by the letter of the law and stood by the turn judge's decision, even though the infraction had no bearing on the outcome of the race. In this case, the United States lodged a protest when it became apparent that Smith would be allowed to swim in yesterday's event even though she failed to meet the original entry deadline.

The issue was decided before the arbitration panel an hour before yesterday's first heat. Irish Olympic officials insisted that they had been told they could submit her qualifying time after the original entry deadline.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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