By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Ireland’s triple Olympic gold medalist, Michelle Smith de Bruin, has pledged to fight the four-year ban imposed on her by swimming’s international governing body, FINA.
De Bruin, who last week was found guilty of tampering with her urine sample during an out-of-competition drugs test in January, has said she will be appealing the FINA decision to the Court of Arbitration of Sport. If that avenue fails, she said she will take her case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The 28-year-old swimmer, who caused a storm of controversy at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 with a series of greatly improved performances that won her three gold medals and a bronze, has also threatened to sue FINA for “substantial damages” for what she termed a “blatant and mischievous” attempt to ruin her career.
“I have never cheated or lied and I haven’t lied in this case either,” she said at a press conference in Dublin on Friday. “I believe the decision which has been made by FINA is flawed not only on the facts but also legally. I will prove my innocence at the end of the day.
“I’m not going to crawl under a stone and never be heard from again and not fight this ban.
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However, FINA has been unequivocal in its condemnation of De Bruin. Its Doping Panel, consisting of three lawyers, was adamant that the De Bruin’s urine sample had been tampered with and that there was a “very strong whiskey odor” emanating from the sample.
It also stated that neither the testing laboratory nor the collectors of the sample were responsible for the tampering. “The urine was manipulated by the swimmer, the way of manipulation is uncertain,” the FINA statement damningly concluded.
This complex story began last January when two testers called to De Bruin’s home in County Kilkenny. Initially, the swimmer and her Dutch husband and coach, Erik de Bruin, said the timing of the test was not suitable as Michelle had to go to Dublin airport. Soon, however, they agreed with the testers, an Irish couple, Al and Kay Guy, that the test should take place.
De Bruin needed two attempts to supply the requisite amount of urine. Her first visit to the lavatory, accompanied by Kay Guy, was followed about half an hour later by a second visit. It was on that second occasion that the small container of urine had a noticeable smell of whiskey coming from it.
Asked how it was that the testers had smelled alcohol from the sample, de Bruin said she did not know. “There was never any question raised,” she added. Responding to the same question, her lawyer, Peter Lennon, replied: “No one has produced any evidence that Michelle physically tampered with this sample, and that is what is required under the law regarding the burden of proof.”
Despite being found guilty of a serious doping offense, a significant amount of public support remains for de Bruin. According to a Sunday Independent poll, 52 percent believed her when she said she had never cheated and 54 percent believed her four-year ban was unfair.
However, former champion swimmer Gary O’Toole offered a much different slant on the affair in the same Sunday paper. “I accept what FINA are saying about Michelle de Bruin,” he wrote. “If they say she cheated in January of 1998, I believe them. If they are shown to be wrong on appeal, then everything I ever believed in throughout my sporting career will stand for nothing. I hate the act of cheating. I liked Michelle Smith, I admired her in many ways. Now I pity Michelle de Bruin.”
In a hard-hitting article, O’Toole also said that de Bruin had been labeled with the drugs tag as far back as 1994. “Let there be no doubt that American’s Janet Evans was two years behind many swimmers in her questioning of Michelle,” he wrote.
Yet there has already been speculation that de Bruin has a good chance of winning her appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. It is believed she will challenge FINA on a number of procedural technicalities. She has already claimed that the seals on the sample containers could have been broken and she has criticized FINA’s Doping Panel chairman, Harm Beyer, of making public comments in advance of her hearing.
There is also the sub-text of Erik de Bruin, who was himself given a four-year ban in the early 1990s for drug taking. A high-ranking discus thrower, de Bruin had won silver medals at both the World and European championships before he tested positive for an illegally high level of testosterone, for the pregnancy hormone Human Chorionic Gonadatropine, as well as the anabolic steroid Stanozolol.
It was only when Erik de Bruin took over as Michelle Smith’s coach in 1993 that her performances showed such a dramatic, and some would say unbelievable, upward curve.
Asked at last week’s press conference if she felt FINA has been pursuing a vendetta against her, de Bruin nodded in the direction of her husband and said: “I’m married to this man. Some would think that’s motive enough.”
Back in 1996 at Atlanta, when the first serious public questions over de Bruin’s progress were raised, President Clinton was on hand to offer some advice. “Don’t mind all of that crap,” he said.
Now as she fights to save both her career and her reputation, the past may have caught up to Michelle de Bruin.