In what has to be one of the darkest days in the annals of Irish sports, Olympic champion swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin was slapped with a four-year ban Thursday after international swimming officials concluded that a random drug test administered in January had been manipulated.
The announcement came less than two weeks after the athlete’s hearing in Lausanne, Switzerland, before a three-man doping panel of the International Swimming Federation (FINA). At a press conference in Dublin on Friday, de Bruin did not dispute the test results but denied having tried to mask her urine sample. She instead pointed an accusatory finger at FINA and vowed to appeal to clear her name.
De Bruin, then known only as Michelle Smith, won four medals in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Three of them were gold: in the 400-meter freestyle and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. Those performances, readers will remember, were themselves controversial. In three years she had gone from a rather ordinary international swimmer to the world’s best. The swimming community and the media put her under a microscope in the days and weeks that followed her victories. That public scrutiny receded in the intervening months but never completely went away.
At the time of de Bruin’s Olympic success, competitors, swimming officials and journalists alike all hinted, and in some cases said outright, that she had to have used performance-enhancing drugs during her training. Lacking evidence, they nonetheless pointed not only to her sudden improvements, but to her age at the time, 26. In a sport dominated by women in their teens and barely out of their teens, it is impossible, they said, for someone de Bruin’s age to have made such strides. They suggested that she had used artificial steroids, chemical substances that enable an athlete to recover quickly and thus train longer and harder than she could otherwise. In didn’t help that her husband, Erik de Bruin, a Dutch discus thrower, had himself been banned for using illegal substances and, worse, remained unrepentant. He began coaching her, her detractors noted, in 1993, the same year that her times began their dramatic drop.
Against this compelling backdrop and given her current suspension for tampering, one could be forgiven for inferring that de Bruin’s Olympic performances had to have been tainted by drugs as well. But that ignores the undeniable fact that de Bruin passed every other drug test she’d taken. If one is to accept the results of the most recent test, which found that the athlete’s urine sample had been spiked with alcohol, one must also accept that the tests conducted before, during and after the Olympics, all of which came out clean, were also accurate in their findings.
It is unlikely, of course, that de Bruin’s detractors will see it that way. But her supporters should also be careful not to wear blinders over this most recent controversy. Indeed, the FINA testing procedure is a thorough one. A member of the testing team is with the athlete when she gives the sample. The sample is then divided for separate testing. The bottles caps are tightened and secured with tape. The bottles are then placed in bags that are also secured. The samples are rushed via courier to an International Olympic Committee-approved lab — in this case, Barcelona. If the first sample is positive, only then is the second sample tested, and it is done in the presence of the athlete or her representative.
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Given such a rigorous procedure, it’s highly unlikely that the test results are inaccurate. Therefore, barring an honest mistake, either de Bruin manipulated her own urine sample or, as she has charged, FINA officials have conspired to get rid of her and the controversy that has dogged her — and their — every step. One would like to believe the athlete when she says she had no motive for introducing alcohol or some other masking agent into here urine, but, on the other hand, those not inclined toward conspiracy theories will have a hard time buying into her allegations. After all, with de Bruin mostly inactive since her Olympic triumphs and probably lacking the motivation to sincerely compete at the rarefied level again, who truly benefits from her ouster? No one, that’s who. And who benefits from the bad publicity? Again, no one – and certainly not FINA.
Whatever the outcome of de Bruin’s promised appeal to the independent International Court of Arbitration for Sport, this is a classic lose-lose situation. As Dr. Don H. Catlin, director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, said last week, ” it was another sad day for sports.”