By John Kelly
If Michelle Smith De Bruin is a liar, she may be the best ever. At her Dublin press conference on Friday, Aug. 7, she displayed lightning-like mental reflexes. Not for the first time, she threw the still dubious press right back on their heels.
She seems to perform best when she is under attack. Maybe that is really what makes her a champion.
In May, she took part in an international competition just outside of Paris. She won the 800 meters freestyle in just 8 minutes, 40.1 seconds, to rank seventh in the world for that particular event. That is faster than any Irish male swimmer currently competing and only 8 seconds slower than the fastest Irishman over the distance, David Teevan, who set the record in 1988.
In short, even though the world of sport does not wish to recognize it, de Bruin is a phenomenal swimmer. If she is not a barefaced liar, she has to be one of the worst victimized sports stars in history.
At the time she won that event in May, she was subject to the most searching drugs investigation ever carried out by FINA, the international policing body for swimming.
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Perhaps the only outcome that can satisfy the international sporting press is that she should stop winning.
As the result of the FINA decision, it highly doubtful that she will be able to participate in the forthcoming Olympic Games in Australia. Presumably, her most severe critics are now satisfied.
It is not the international press alone that has been most critical of her. Here at home, sports journalists have written many negative articles. The assumption underlying almost all of the criticism is that she just could not have developed as she did, rising from near obscurity, to world stardom without the aid of banned substances.
The journalists have every right to be dubious. It is essential that reporters must maintain a stolid objectivity, even in the face of legal and public pressure. It is equally essential that they should also be fair.
At her stunning press conference, almost as dramatic as some of her greatest victories, one of the questions asked brought the public right back to the massive innuendo that surfaced in the wake of her mind-boggling performances at the Atlanta Olympics.
How could a mere slip of a girl from a tiny island that does not even have an Olympic size pool suddenly emerge as the best female swimmer in the world?
The U.S. champion swimmer Janet Evans articulated it all when she commented that the speculation about drugs was the talk of the poolside. As a result, she immediately became something of a hate object in Ireland.
To be fair to her, it must be said that she made no allegation herself. She merely confirmed the speculation in Atlanta. But in doing so in such a public fashion during a press conference flashed around the world, she inflicted irredeemable damage on Ireland’s phenomenal sports star.
The pace of the speculation quickened in international sporting publications. Instead of becoming a multimillionairess, feted at international swimming event after event, de Bruin is now a badly tarnished former heroine. She is the saddest proof of the old adage that if you throw enough muck, it will stick.
The most salient fact of all, despite the ongoing speculation, is that the sample provided to FINA did not reveal the presence of any banned substances. Laboratory technicians also confirmed that even the presence of whiskey in the sample could not adulterate it in such a fashion as to mask the presence of drugs.
Yet the sample was clear of any such substances.
So, on the morning of Jan. 10, when the samplers Al and Kay Guy arrived at her home in Kilkenny, why should de Bruin have bothered to tamper with the sample?
FINA has not punished her for using banned substances. She has been banned for tampering with a sample, a conviction that she flatly denies and one she said she will appeal to the highest courts.
Why should she and her husband, Erik De Bruin, have decided to tamper with the sample if they knew that she was clear of banned substances, as FINA adjudged her to be?
Why should she then go on to break her own record in such spectacular fashion the following May when she knew that she was continually subjected to the most intense random testing ever inflicted by FINA?
None of it makes sense unless there is another factor involved in, a personal factor. She is married to Erik De Bruin, her coach and a man banned from track and field for four years after testing positive for drugs. He has never made any secret of his huge contempt for FINA and has been involved in several altercations with high level officials.
Until she met Erik de Bruin and took him on as her coach, Michelle Smith de Bruin never achieved anything like the success she did achieve. Even more damning so far as many sports journalists are concerned is that she showed little or no indication until then of ever being able to reach such dizzying heights.
The conclusion is clear. It was Erik de Bruin who guided her in the use of drugs during her training and has shown her how to hide their presence.
Perhaps that is the case. But those who know Michelle best also swear that she is not that type of girl. She would never risk disgracing herself, her family and her country, they claim. Certainly, that is what comes across at her every public appearance.
Sports journalists, of all people, must realize that the strangest things can happen in sport. A duck can be transformed into a swan. The case against Michelle Smith de Bruin is not yet conclusively proven. And she must be allowed the benefit of the great, continuing doubt.