Olympics: Michelle Smith saga still divides 20 years on

Commentators recall how they felt when swimmer won three gold medals in Atlanta

Michelle Smith won three gold medals and a bronze at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Games, but two years later, she was banned for four years for tampering with a urine sample. Ireland became divided: some continued to believe in her swims, some did not.

 

A story that has the capacity to divide opinions 20 years after the events took place marked a point in time when Irish sport began to question its innocence and its place in a harsh sporting world. It was Atlanta 1996 and one bronze and three gold medals in the pool from Michelle Smith caught people in different ways. Stunning. Remarkable, Unbelievable. Happy. Surreal. Sad.

History-making, certainly. What happened two years later, when she was banned for four years for adulterating a urine sample is an inescapable part of the overall landscape but for this exercise the week of swimming in the Georgia Tech pool, is the focus, not what happened in her house in Kilkenny in 1998. There is no doubt the week unfolded in more simple times but, as it did, people were asked to fall one way or the other.

Ireland became pro- or anti-Michelle Smith and divided down the line of whether they believed in her swims or not. All this with no hard evidence, only swimming experts, largely from the US, insisting improvements from a swimmer who could not get out of the heats in Barcelona in 1992 to a triple gold medallist were not possible. She said she trained smart and they wanted to know how smart that was.

There is no right or wrong view and although 20 years on we have all become experts on remarkable improvements, in 1996 that was not the case. It was a time when cyclists were complaining about police raids on their teams. How quaint that seems. But there was circumstantial evidence and that coalesced to form body of work that was persuasive to many but not all. Even now two decades later that remains the case.

Paul Howard

Writer and sports journalist

I followed the Erik de Bruin story quite closely when he tested positive. I didn’t buy the notion that his crimes were his crimes and had nothing to do with her because he was training her at the time. As she said herself he was the wind beneath her wings. I suppose I was suspicious going into those Olympics. Everyone knew there had been enormous gains in her performances and times but I don’t think anybody in her sport expected her to win even one gold medal. I was shocked by it not in a pleasant way.

That week in the Sunday Tribune I was writing a profile of Erik and chatted to a journalist from de Volkskrant newspaper. It just happened he had done an interview with Erik six months earlier and faxed over the report. To see Erik de Bruin talk so unabashedly about his admiration for Ben Johnson and at the same time Michelle was saying this man turned my career around. I just felt it required a huge suspension of disbelief to celebrate these medals or not be suspicious. My memory is that a lot of people were dubious of these performances and that it was the subject of pub jokery. I don’t remember her performances being universally celebrated. With RTÉ it was kind of like they were trying to wish this national mood on everybody. I don’t think that actually squared with the reality.

Eamonn Coghlan

Athlete

I remember I went down to the bookies and put 100 quid on four gold medals for Ireland. Michelle won her first, second, third. Then it was Sonia. I was expecting Sonia to come away with possibly two gold medals. We know what happened. She was just unwell going into the games. So I lost my money on four gold medals.

I worked for RTÉ during the games. There was a lot of rumour, innuendo and talk behind the scenes by those who knew. I had mixed emotions about her winning, based on rumours and innuendos. And the same rumours go on about athletes from certain countries whether they be in Africa or Europe or the United States.

Take Ben Johnson. He was juiced up to the gills for many years before going into the Olympic Games [in 1988]. He had made huge transformations in his body shape and those jaundiced eyes when he won the Olympic final and it was, “Oh f**k”. He got what came to him. Michelle unfortunately got what came to her too.

Bernard Allen

Minister for sport in 1996

It was a week of euphoria really and it provoked a major clamour at the time for a 50m pool in Ireland because of her triumphs. Her home-coming was euphoric also. I suppose at the time when the American swimmer [Janet Evans] made the ill-tempered comments, I think it was almost classified as a national affront.

The euphoria turned to major disappointment when the subsequent events happened. I think there was a sense of great national pride, something we never experienced. The number of successes over such a short period was something we had never experienced at international or Olympic level. I think everybody at the time took great pride in her achievements. It was subsequently that questions arose. Significant though that the Olympic movement never withdrew her medals.

Gary Hall jnr

Five times Olympic gold medallist, three times World Championship gold medallist

Johnny, below, I’m copying the latest email I sent to Michelle. I’ve sent similar emails through the years. Michelle has never responded. I’ve never shared with anyone that I [continue to] petition Michelle, pleading that she recognise those she unfairly defeated. I don’t have a close relationship with any of the swimmers I write on behalf of. I have no agenda or personal gain out of the effort. I think it sums up my feeling, and commitment to the pursuit of justice. Gary

Second Captains

Hello again, I’m not sure why I feel compelled to reach out, to repeat my request for justice. Why something that happened nearly 20 years ago keeps me up at night, I can’t fully comprehend. Please, try to understand that (if you cheated) a terrible injustice has occurred. I plead that you recognize the untainted achievement of Marianne Limpert, Allison Wagner and Joanne Malar and any other swimmer displaced by your accomplishment at the 1996 Olympics.

The impact on those mentioned must be a terrible burden. I’ve witnessed a lasting psychological impairment in Allison Wagner. It troubles me deeply. I’ve lost touch with the other swimmers. As I’ve mentioned in previous emails, none of those swimmers know I write you. Right this wrong. Only you can. Please do the noble thing, in finding redemption. Only then can you truly put this behind you. It must be a terrible burden for you as well. At the very least, I’ll stop writing these emails . . . Gary Hall jnr

Billy Stickland

Award-winning photographer, Inpho Photographic Agency

My overall feeling was it was just a little surreal. They ran the heats in the morning and the finals in the afternoon and she just kept doing it day after day. The whole thing was just surreal and I remember the press conferences where everybody simply seemed stunned. The fourth medal she got bronze and I went to photograph her after that. I was talking to the manager or agent and they said that Bill Clinton had rung her up the previous night to offer congratulations and he had woken her up. She still went out the next day to win the medal.

I remember that last race. Susie O’Neill from Australia won the gold and I went into a press conference lit up with happiness. It was a real contrast because at all the Michelle conferences there was silence with questions about how could this be. It just didn’t make any sense. I remember looking at her body and thinking she was totally transformed. When I had photographed her a few years before she was petite.

What seemed remarkable too was it didn’t seem like a joyous affair. For an Irish person to win a gold medal, normally people would have been delighted. But it wasn’t like that. It became inquisitorial, rather than a celebration.

Joe Duffy

RTÉ broadcaster

I saw the week through Michelle’s father. My memory of Brian was that I felt he really connected with people. He came across as a really dedicated man. I suppose I have a particular affinity for swimming because I swim every morning myself and I know the sacrifices they make. Brian spoke about that aspect and he really connected with people with the whole sacrifice side of things.

My belief is that he really believed in what he said that she never took anything. It was so reaffirming and, 20 years ago now, I thought Brian came across then a really genuine person.

With Michelle there was genuine euphoria and from people who swam, they took it as strongly positive. I think there was a real feeling of joy. What I saw was that this came after George Gibney and those dark days in swimming and the child abuse that had taken place not so long before. I remember talking on that issue with Gary [O’Toole]. If you can remember the disposition of Irish swimming then, it wasn’t very positive. You know it was like “my God a couple of gold medals compared to what had gone in the sport before with Gibney and O’Rourke”.

Gary O’Toole

1996 swimming analyst, Olympic swimmer and consultant orthopaedic surgeon

My first holiday job was to cover the Olympics for RTÉ. I had canvassed for it. I called Tim O’Connor [former head of sport] and we had a meeting a couple of weeks before with Eamonn [Coghlan] and John [Treacy]. They discussed how well Sonia was going to do and I pointed out how well Michelle was going to do.There was stunned silence. Bill [O’Herlihy] just nodded his head. He knew how well she had conditioned herself from Sally [his daughter], who was still involved in swimming. There was a lot of coughing and spluttering when I said we should win four medals and a number of them would be gold. The 400 freestyle, I think was first. It was bizarre.

We expected it but we were living in a protected insular environment within the confines of RTÉ. Although there wasn’t celebratory jumping up and down in the street there was huge interest. It was an exhausting week. When someone wins a gold medal in swimming about which nobody knows anything, people paid attention to the post event analysis.

I remember it fondly for the time spent with Bill and how he behaved throughout. But there was a genuine relief on my part that we were muzzled. I was just starting out on my career in medicine and I didn’t have the confidence or the worldly experience and I had just been through the George Gibney debacle and I didn’t want to be the person to put my hand up and say, “Hold on a sec, there’s something not quite right here”. So when they said you couldn’t discuss it at all it kind of suited me. I didn’t want to be seen to be always the one being the sort of ringmaster of chaos.

The director-general decreed – and this came down through Bill – that no questions were to be put to me about any of the insinuations or rumours that were circulating. They were, after all, only rumours and there was no evidence and RTÉ deals in facts. Did they renege on their responsibility? Perhaps. Did Bill and I renege on our responsibility? Should I have stood up? I wasn’t a journalist.

It wasn’t questioning my journalistic integrity. I was answering the questions I was being asked and that’s how I squared it off in my own mind. We bumped into each other a few times after the Olympics at the latter end of 1996 and January 1997 at sports awards.

She was still swimming but I haven’t seen or met Michelle now for perhaps 18 years. At the end of the day I think the negative impact of the child abuse scandal was massive but the medals had neither a negative or positive impact, neither encouraged or discouraged people from taking up the sport.

Nick O’Hare

Swimming analyst and Atlanta Olympics team-mate

I got on particularly well with Michelle and Erik. But everyone at that stage was very much behind Michelle. We lived in a big frat house in the village. Sonia stayed off-site but Michelle stayed there. I remember getting the phone call from [RTÉ commentator] Jim Sherwin asking if I’d come up and do the commentary. She won the race [400m individual medley].

She was strong all the way and was ahead going into the freestyle. Krisztina Egerszegi and Allison Wagner were beside her and she just blew them away. I expected Egerszegi to come back on her because she was dominating individual medley swimming for years but Michelle just pulled away.

You get caught up in the euphoria of it. There was a great buzz and from a swimming perspective the sport finally got a bit of coverage. Two more golds after that and then she got a bronze in the last race which Susie O’Neill won. When Michelle came over to hug her . . . the look on Susie’s face.

At that stage we were getting a bit sick of the hype and the rumours. It went from euphoria to here we go again. What are the headlines going to be tomorrow? I think it went downhill after the second gold medal. It was like, “okay, now we’re going to get bombarded by press”.

Cynicism might be a bit strong but obviously there was questioning in all the papers. She absolutely dominated in the Olympics. In the 400 individual medley she hammered them. It doesn’t look like that on the telly but she hammered them. In the 400 freestyle, she took control all the way and then the 200 individual medley, okay she just came out of nowhere at the end of it. I suppose cynicism did come in there. You still meet people today saying the Americans were jealous.

The world was jealous. It didn’t harm us but when the whiskey in the jar happened [1998] it brought it to a different level. Away from the pool she was surprisingly controlled. But in between the gold medals we didn’t see her. I met Gary Hall jnr, who won two gold and two silver medals with USA. He’s a laid-back, easy-going guy but there was more joy coming out of Gary than Michelle. You’d Krisztina Egerszegi and Susie O’Neill, the queens of international swimming and then this Irish girl goes something like 22 seconds faster in four years. Incredulous.

If I had that improvement I’d be sitting here now with two Olympic gold medals and two Olympic records around my neck. They were interesting times. Every conversation was what about this girl Michelle Smith.

Jimmy Magee

Retired broadcaster

No one in Ireland would have been expecting three gold medals in swimming. An athletics medal or a boxing medal yes, but not swimming. I remember Michelle’s da actually. He was famous at the time, bringing her down and picking her up in the early hours of the morning and I was pleased that it had some sort of conclusion in Atlanta. Then there was the press conference. The Americans had a go at her really.

Remember Seán Bán Breathnach who spoke to her in Gaelic. It was only a few sentences but those who were anti-her at the time, the Americans, thought this was a set-up. It wasn’t. That’s what he did. He did it with [boxer Chris] Eubank in Cork and Mill Street as well. Yes, I did think she was getting a hard deal. I thought at the time and since it was a worthy occasion for Michelle and for us. It was an awful pity that it didn’t materialise for what it was worth. It was worth more than it got, I think. I do remember it with some fondness, very much so, very much so.

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