By John Kelly
It’s a rare occurrence indeed to witness heavyweights Gerry Adams and John Trimble being ushered off the front page headlines at a time when the island is facing a major referendum, the outcome of which will set the national parameters for decades to come. It is even rarer when the person who ushers them out is a small, densely compacted bundle of feminine dynamite, crowned by a curly mop of carrot red hair and three gold Olympic medals.
Michele Smyth or Michelle de Bruin, to use the marriage name she wishes to use, is that sort of person. So, move over Trimble and Adams. The plain people of Ireland are not talking about decommissioning or the Amsterdam Treaty. They are back in Atlanta, where other famous battles were fought, back at the Olympic Games. They are talking about Michelle de Bruin, the Dublin Gaelgoir from Clondalkin who now lives in Kilkenny.
Their conversation is as complex as the details of the Amsterdam pact, except that it involves chemical curiosities rather than exchange rates. Its arithmetical computations revolve around milligrams and liquid densities.
However, at the heart of the subtle equations is the saga of a young woman who should have millions and is instead now fighting for the survival of her tarnished, tattered career. It is the story of a young mother and wife, deeply in love with a Dutch husband who is also a foremost international athlete until he strayed across the blurred line which delineates the space between fair and foul.
Erik De Bruin was once found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs to further his athletic career. He paid the penalty. Now it seems that Michele is condemned to pay for it as well for the rest of her career – if there is going to be any career left
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As the allegations unfold, it seems that the laboratory technicians were astounded to discover that her urine sample contained what they considered to be an astounding percentage of alcohol. So what? Does this mean that Michelle’s training secret is out at last? Does it come in a bottle of whiskey? Perhaps she takes the odd tipple, although she claimed at her press conference that it merely made her sick. There are few enough athletes who will argue that copious drams of Jameson or Powers could be construed to be “performance enhancing,” especially over a long period of time.
It would make a great movie. Ideally, the ending should culminate with the total vindication of Michelle de Bruin. It should be conclusively proven that she never used steroids or any other suspect chemicals. She should absolutely confound her critics. Heads should roll at the highest levels.
Then, at the fade-out, we should witness another gold Olympic medal being draped around her neck as the tri-color stretches proudly in the breeze and the Irish National Anthem blares over the packed stadium, while her adoring husband grips back the tears of joy.
It should end that way. It would make a great movie, combining all of the deepest human emotions, love, true grit, victory, despair, jealousy, treachery and then, at last, the ultimate triumph. I am sure that Noel Pearson is already eagerly following the script.
Alas, life rarely follows a movie script and the sad prediction of most sporting gurus, admirers and critics alike, British and Irish, is that Michelle Smyth de Bruin is in really deep trouble indeed.
It all goes back to Atlanta, of course, perhaps back even further to her marriage to de Bruin. It has its deepest roots in envy and disbelief.
The former U.S. Olympic champion Janet Evans publicly dug the boot in during that unedifying press conference at Atlanta when she mischievously inferred that there was a huge question mark surrounding the Irish woman’s enormously improved performances.
Many powerful media columnists and sportswriters came to similar conclusions. In fact, so sharp were the differences that one British swimming correspondent claimed in a recent radio interview that he and some of the Irish had almost come to blows with some of their U.S. counterparts who made the most serious allegations on the most spurious of grounds. Surely that was a unique example of British/Irish cooperation!
In short, whatever about the truth, from Atlanta on, Michelle had become a woman to be watched, a woman who had to be “caught.” As a result of the innuendo, nothing she could do was right. She has earned only a fraction of the cash she should have earned. The whispering continued, occasionally reaching a crescendo, even within the Irish media, urged on by writers like Pat Kimmage, who certainly learned all that he wanted to learn about performance-enhancing drugs on the international cycling circuit.
She was the ultimate victim of the old adage “Throw enough mud and it will stick.”
Occasionally, Michelle does not help her own case. Doggedly, she refuses to answer any questions concerning her training methods. Once, she even compared her regime to the “secret formula,” alleged to give Coca-Cola its unique taste.
And veteran sports reporters cannot forget the massive transformation she underwent. Once, she had been a normal young woman without any unusual muscular attributes. A good swimmer, yes, and very eager to stretch herself to her limits, but certainly not Olympic material. That was the consensus. But if a consensus was always universally right, sport would lose its drama and the attraction of its uncertainty. Every race would be won by the favorite.
Michelle Smyth went to Holland to train under the tutelage of her suspect husband. Then, she came back, heavily muscled, superbly fit and even more strongly motivated. Atlanta ended in triumph. And she adopted her marriage name, Michelle de Bruin.
But how had she achieved the transformation? That is what many Irish sporting correspondents and experts ask, apparently failing to believe that it can be achieved with the most conventional methods, laced with a huge degree of motivation and an almost inhuman level of self-confidence. She proved the unbelievable. A duck can be charmed into becoming a swan.