Ireland's Smith caught in a trap because of suspicious minds. ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 27, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA - Oh, the cheat was at it again last night. Failed to march out with the other swimmers. Claimed she was late because she - ahem - broke her goggles.

Where was Michelle Smith?

What was she doing?

Why can't she follow the rules?

Enough already. The goggles question brought the Smith controversy to a level of absurdity, and it's rather amazing that the subject of this witch hunt will leave this country seemingly unscathed.

"This was the greatest week of my life," Smith said last night after winning her fourth individual medal - a bronze - in the women's 200-meter butterfly. "I'm so proud of what I've done."

What she did was fall only a few seconds short of joining East Germany's Kristin Otto as the only women in Olympic history to win four individual golds in swimming.

Smith, 26, is a national hero in Ireland.

But in Atlanta, she was a subject of suspicion, even scorn.

Incredible as it might sound, President Clinton might have been the only friend she had.

"He said to me he really admired what I done in all my races, winning my medals," Smith said. "He said, 'I also liked the way you handled the press throwing all that crap at you. We know what it's like. We've had to deal with it ourselves.' "

Never let it be said that Clinton doesn't excel in foreign policy. Whitewater, pool water, hot water, it's all the same to Bill and his new best friend, Michelle.

Alas, that doesn't get Smith off the hook.

No one can prove whether she used performance-enhancing drugs, but when a swimmer shows such dramatic improvement in her times, it certainly raises the question.

Former Olympic champion Janet Evans raised it. U.S. coach Richard Quick raised it. It seems almost everyone in U.S. swimming raised it, to the point where you just wished they'd shut up.

For all anyone knows, they're right about Smith, but that's not the point. The United States won a surprising 26 medals in swimming. Too often, the coaches' explanation for defeat is that someone else is cheating.

It's a double standard. If Smith's four medals are curious, then why aren't Angel Martino's? Like Smith, Martino, 29, is an older swimmer. Unlike Smith, she actually tested positive for illegal steroids, in 1988.

Maybe Smith's a liar.

But Martino was convicted.

And more recently, the United States lost Jessica Foschi, a 15-year-old Olympic hopeful, when a hotly disputed drug test showed that she, too, had used steroids.

Clearly, the anti-Smith forces got carried away this week, whining about her belated entry into the 400 freestyle, and then again last night about her late arrival to the pool deck.

The drug question is the big one.

The trickiest one, too.

Point: People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Counterpoint: The United States might be the sport's lone rational voice.

Point: Smith is innocent until proven guilty.

Counterpoint: The United States shouldn't remain silent if it perceives injustice.

Most of the nation's elite swimmers heartily endorsed Foschi's suspension. And the sudden decline of the Chinese in this meet might be related to their fears of testing positive after years of U.S. accusations.

"Given the state of affairs of this sport, I don't think any athlete has been tested enough," Quick said yesterday. "FINA [swimming's governing body] ought to be testing all the athletes more.

"From what I've seen, they don't come in here very often. And if we don't talk about the drug issue in public, nothing happens. It just goes away, and nothing gets done.

"People ask me, what tips you off [to drug use]? Is it their size? Is it their complexion? Their voice? No. There are a lot of people who have an unusual build or tone of voice.

"The rate of improvement that a person goes through, that's what counts the most. That's the thing that causes questions in Michelle's case."

How did Smith cut 19 seconds off her time in the 400 freestyle in barely a year's time? Well, the 400 wasn't an event she swam often. Perhaps her improvement resulted simply from devoting more time to it.

Or perhaps she was influenced by her husband, Eric de Bruin, who tested positive as a discus thrower for the Netherlands in 1993. She agrees he has played a pivoted role in her career, but not for the reason many suspect.

"Meeting my husband was a turning point," Smith said. "He knows a lot more about advanced methods of training than I did or any coaches I had before. When he changed my training methods, I started improving."

Smith, a former distance swimmer, said she started weight training, incorporated speed workouts and changed her diet. Her explanation is somewhat plausible. Whether it's the truth is anyone's guess.

Whatever, the witch hunt is over.

Did the uproar bother Smith?

"Does it look as if it did?" she replied. "I just kept going and going."

And now, she's going home.

Smith's eyes twinkled.

"I heard they might be planning a national holiday," she said.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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