Bronze may be plus for Smith 200 result may quiet worst of steroid talk

Atlanta Olympics

July 27, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Michelle Smith's last golden moment ended up being bronze, but that didn't change anything. She still will leave the XXVI Olympiad with more individual gold medals than any other swimmer, and she still will go home under a cloud of suspicion.

4 It may not be fair, but that will be her legacy.

Smith went after her fourth individual gold on the last night of the swimming competition at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, hoping to complete an Irish Cinderella story that some thought was too good to be true. She ended up finishing third behind Australians Susan O'Neill and Petria Thomas in the 200-meter butterfly, and joined Americans Amy Van Dyken and Angel Martino as the only four-medal swimmers.

But, in a funny sort of way, it may have been the best outcome. Smith had come out of nowhere to win her first three events -- and her rivals rushed to raise questions about possible steroid abuse -- but the third-place finish may have served to humanize her accomplishments, perhaps enough so that she can go home and truly enjoy one of the most amazing performances in the history of Olympic swimming.

She even managed to surprise herself.

"I never thought I would be standing up here with three gold medals and a bronze medal," Smith said. "I thought I might have a chance to win a medal, but I never thought I would win four."

In the space of a single week, Smith has become one of Ireland's greatest sporting heroes. Her dramatic improvement since the 1992 Barcelona Games may have raised questions among steroid-suspicious fellow athletes, but it is the kind of rags-to-riches story that used to be what the Olympics were all about.

The joke du jour at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center is that Smith is keeping pubs all over Ireland open all night. But it's far from a joke.

She has become so popular so quickly that angry Irish citizens reportedly have flooded the American Embassy with telephone calls to complain about the way she has been portrayed by the media in the United States.

Smith got what might pass for an apology for that from President Clinton, who attended the swimming competition on Thursday night with his family and visited with selected Olympic participants afterward.

The president apparently compared the veil of suspicion that some have thrown over Smith with the treatment he has received from certain segments of the American media regarding the Whitewater scandal.

"He said that he was full of admiration for me and the

performances that I've put in throughout the week," Smith said.

"He also said, 'I also admire the way you've handled all the crap that's been thrown at you. We've had to deal with that ourselves.' He said he knows what it's like."

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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