Unless there's proof, leave Smith alone

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The case against Michelle Smith is completely circumstantial. The Irish swimmer stands accused of improving too much too quickly too late in her life.

The implication is that she has done so illegally. The proof has yet to be produced. No positive drug tests. No titillating testimony. No direct evidence of any kind. Nothing that could convict the three-time gold medalist of ill-gotten gains.

Just a lot of arched American eyebrows.

''It is a topic of conversation on the pool deck,'' said U.S. swimmer Janet Evans. ''There are suspicions. But I'm not endorsing them by any means.''

This is the way of world-class athletes. They expect to see progression in painstaking increments, not quantum leaps. Whenever an established sprinter or swimmer suddenly locates an extra gear, alarms automatically go off throughout the sport. No one believes in the big breakthrough. Everyone instinctively says, ''steroids.''

It is a sad commentary on sport, and a sign of our skeptical times. Eight years after her stunning performance in Seoul, Florence Griffith-Joyner has still not convinced much of the track world she ran clean.

Similarly, Michelle Smith will be a long time shaking the perception that she is the product of creative chemistry. Her husband and coach, Eric DeBruin, was banned in 1993 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. On the pool deck, this is considered as damning as O.J. Simpson's DNA.

''I just have to laugh at it,'' Smith said of the suspicions about her Wednesday night, following her victory in the 200-meter individual medley. ''At the end of the day you just have to (laugh). Every time I am tested, it's always negative, and I've been tested again and again. For every one time a person on the U.S. team is tested, I'm tested five times.''

Tests can be beaten, of course. Masking agents have disguised drug use in some cases, and careful timing has allowed drug-enhanced athletes to complete competitions without leaving a trace of a prohibited power source. Ben Johnson got caught, in part, because he was clumsy.

Ours is not to indict Michelle Smith or to exonerate her. She has shown startling improvement, to be sure, blooming into a champion at the relatively advanced age of 26. She also has an explanation.

She has her reasons

''I put my success down to a lot of things,'' she said. ''To training full-time, because I was in university 3ï years ago and now it's really the first time that I have really given 100 percent.''

''When I changed my training, I was getting more rest during the day - that helped a lot. My diet - I've lost a lot of weight. I've got more power because of my weight training. It's a lot of reasons. It's not one reason.''

Smith says she trains six hours a day six days a week. She said her previous Olympic performances were undermined by inexperience (1988) and injury (1992). While training for the '92 Games in Barcelona, Smith hurt her back and tests revealed three degenerative disks. Certainly this should be taken into account.

''I was thinking to myself about 1988 because people were talking about Janet Evans and the things that she said or insinuated about me,'' Smith said. ''If you look at the events that Janet swam in 1988, she won the 400 individual medley, she won the 400-meter freestyle and then she went on to win the 800. In the freestyle, her time was 4:03 and my winning time (in the 400 freestyle) was 4:07. Yet she maintains she is drug free . . . If I was taking drugs, then surely I should be swimming faster than 4:03.''

That argument doesn't really follow. Steroids might provide an athlete with a competitive edge, but they can not guarantee a gold medal or a world-record time. If you're not in Janet Evans' league to start with, you're not going to catch her with chemicals.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published on July 25, 1996.