De Bruin should be stripped of Atlanta medals

 

Yesterday's ruling by FINA, swimming's international governing body, banning Michelle de Bruin from the sport for four years comes as welcome news to all those concerned with the integrity of the sport.

De Bruin was found guilty of manipulating her urine sample in an out-of-competition test last January. Citing the findings of the IOC-accredited Barcelona testing laboratory, the FINA doping panel stated de Bruin's sample contained an alcoholic content "in no way compatible with human consumption".

The decision is significant, especially when combined with the two-year suspensions handed out last month to four Chinese swimmers for using a masking agent at the World Championships in Perth in January. It sends an unequivocal message that doping offences - or the attempt to hide these activities - will not be tolerated, no matter how prominent the athlete. That message is long overdue.

De Bruin is expected to appeal the judgment to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in Lausanne which, in the past, often has ruled in favour of athletes accused of doping violations. If the decision is upheld by the CAS, de Bruin's career will effectively be ended. She would be 32 by the time her ban expires - quite old for a worldclass swimmer - without competitive experience for four years, and still two years away from the Athens Games.

Even if CAS reverses the FINA decision or decides on a lesser punishment, de Bruin's already tattered reputation appears beyond repair.

Though career-ending, I believe the FINA decision does not go far enough: de Bruin should be stripped of her medals from the Olympic Games and European Championships. Those medals should then be presented in a public ceremony to the swimmers who rightfully earned them. Furthermore, as some in the Irish Amateur Swimming Association have suggested, I believe her national records should be expunged from the record book. That way, aspiring young Irish swimmers would have genuine marks on which to set their sights.

Despite the courageous journalism of Tom Humphries in this newspaper and other respected Irish sports journalists, the Irish media have often portrayed the attempt to get to the truth of "l'affaire Michelle" as a vendetta by Janet Evans, the American media or FINA. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let's consider each of these accusations in turn.

Janet Evans, in the twilight of her brilliant career in Atlanta two years ago, was asked by a reporter about the controversy then brewing over Michelle Smith's performances at the Olympic Games. She replied simply that those performances were a hot topic of conversation among swimmers and coaches on the pool deck. That's it: no finger-pointing, no accusations, no intimation that if only Michelle were not a factor, Janet would be golden once again.

It is by no means solely the American media that have looked askance at de Bruin's performances. Rather, fair-minded journalists from around the globe have questioned what clearly is a pattern of performances unprecedented in the history of the sport.

Even members of the Irish national team have raised questions about her performance in Swimming World.

Finally, FINA certainly cannot fairly be accused of conducting a vendetta against de Bruin. In fact, until quite recently that organisation has been extraordinarily timid in casting doubt on anyone - even when mountains of evidence exist, as in the case of the late, unlamented East German "Wundermadchen." It was only when the worldwide hue and cry over doping became so loud that FINA officials justifiably feared for the financial future of the sport (and their own considerable perks) that they, reluctantly, began to take action. Even so, in the case of de Bruin, they did not assess the ultimate penalty - a lifetime ban - against her.

There are good reasons why swimming experts have been suspicious of de Bruin's success since 1994. Here's a quick summary:

Her age. Michelle de Bruin was 26 in Atlanta, not exactly "ancient" in the real world, but quite old for a woman who had been competing at the international level for almost a decade to suddenly begin dropping her times like a 10-year-old hotshot. In fact, it was unprecedented.

The pattern of her performances. To most of the media in Atlanta, Michelle Smith was a complete unknown. But she was well known to Swimming World. She competed in college in the US, swam at several US and Canadian clubs, and was always recognised as a hard worker. She swam at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, coming in near the bottom of the heap. Then, all of a sudden, lightning seemed to strike.

Take, for example, her 400m - one of the events she won in Atlanta. Between 1991 and 1993 she was remarkably consistent, swimming between 4:57 and 4:59 in her biggest meets. Then, in 1994, she dropped her time to 4:49 - a very big improvement. The next year, at 25, she swam 4:42. In Atlanta, she went 4:39 to become Olympic champion and rank first in the world.

Erik de Bruin. Michelle Smith's emergence from obscurity coincides precisely with the appearance in her life of Erik de Bruin. At the end of 1993, de Bruin became her coach. De Bruin was a Dutch discus thrower who was banned from competition for four years after testing positive for steroids. In a 1993 interview about drugs in sport with the Dutch newspaper De Volksrant he stated that drugs were only one of many things that make sport unfair. Athletes do not enter competition on a level playing field, he suggested.

"Who says doping is unethical?" he asked. "Who decides what is ethical? Is politics ethical? Is business ethical? Sports is by definition dishonest. Some people are naturally gifted, others have to work very hard. Some people are not going to make it without extra help."

It appears that FINA has decided that de Bruin has achieved her success with lots of hard work and that little extra help. In the process, she has betrayed those who held her up as a role model.

Dr Philip Whitten is the editor-in-chief of the US-published Swimming World magazine, the magazine of record in the sport of swimming.