Stories of sudden success, such as the one carved out by Irish swimmer Michelle Smith in Atlanta, occasion long and anguished colloquies among the men and women credentialed to tell them. At what point is it fair to "put in play" questions of drugs? How much innuendo can be written into a news report about how Smith's physique grew and her times shrank precisely when she moved to the Netherlands, the seedbed of performance-enhancing substances like erythropoetin and human-growth hormone, for which chemical sleuths have no tests? Is it possible to ignore the fact that Smith's husband and coach, Erik de Bruin, a former Dutch discus thrower, is banned from competition by his sport's governing body, the IAAF, because of a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs?
These questions resonated last week for Irish journalist Paul Kimmage, who, during a four-year career as a professional cyclist in the late 1980s, witnessed and, on occasion, partook of the secret pharmacological culture of sports. The expose he wrote after retiring, A Rough Ride, earned him the contempt of the cycling community, which literally turned its back on him when he began covering sports as a writer for Dublin's Sunday Independent. Kimmage agonized over what to express in print last weekend but finally penned a story conveying his doubts that Smith did not use drugs, urging his fellow citizens to "take your heads out of the sand."
"I listen to people who are on the inside," says Kimmage, "and when people on the inside say this improvement is incredible for a 26-year-old woman, I'm suspicious. These people jumping up and down in the streets back home were the first to point the finger at the Chinese when they beat [Irish distance runner] Sonia O'Sullivan at the worlds three years ago. But when it's one of our own, they don't want to believe she'd do it. 'An Irish girl? Taking drugs?' "
Before he sat down to write his story, Kimmage called his wife, Ann, and voiced his questions about Ireland's Olympic hero. "You're not going to write all that, are you?" she said, knowing that if he did, she and Paul and their children, Evelyn, 6, and Eoin, 4, would be in for another turn in pariahdom, another rough ride. But write it he did.
When Kimmage gets back to the Auld Sod, that photo will still be hanging in his office, the one of him riding in his last Tour de France, in 1989, scaling a peak in the Pyrenees. In the background is Johannes Draaijer, one of a spate of young Dutch cyclists who died of heart failure from 1987 to '90. No one in the sport doubts that some frightening, newfangled drug was responsible.
Kimmage could not bear to watch Smith win her third gold medal. He was in the press room, transcribing an interview, when the distant strains of the Irish national anthem told him she had won again. "I've never been so driven to write, but never been so afraid and sad," he said before sitting down to compose his Sunday sermon. "I don't know what the solution is." He found something to say, but it didn't make him or anyone else very happy.