If all were right, Michelle Smith, the Irish swimmer, would be an athlete of formidable celebrity. At last year's Atlanta Olympics, she powered her way to three gold medals and a bronze. She achieved this astonishing success at an age, 26, when most female swimmers are a half decade beyond their best performances. She's the first female athlete from Ireland to have won an Olympic gold medal and the first Irish swimmer to have won an Olympic medal of any sort. And she got her medals despite the fact that there is no swimming pool in Ireland that is more than half the length of an Olympic pool, which is 50 meters.
She is a handsome woman with bright eyes and bright teeth, her head framed by wavy reddish-blonde hair. She speaks well, when she chooses to speak, and has strong opinions, when she chooses to share them. She's fluent in Gaelic and Dutch as well as English. She's a hard worker. She's driven. Her parents, middle-class Dubliners proud of the accomplishments of all four of their children, are modest and kindhearted.
Do you think it would be difficult for advertising agencies and marketing departments and publicists to package all this? Is it hard to imagine a full-page ad for Aer Lingus in USA Today featuring Smith as a mermaid, half-submerged in the sparkling Irish Sea, floating above the words COME SWIM IN MY WATERS?
There's no such ad. There will be no such ad. Eight months after her triumphs in Atlanta, Smith is virtually ignored outside her own country and her own sport. Your plumber, your neighbor, your kid's kindergarten teacher, they all know more about Eddie Edwards, the nutty British ski jumper, than they do about Smith, the most accomplished Olympic athlete in Irish history. That is because Smith, with her broad shoulders and thick biceps, carries a taint.
In innumerable reports from Atlanta in the days after Smith's victories, the world press, fueled by innuendo from U.S. swimmers and coaches, implied that no 26-year-old swimmer could make the improvements Smith had made unless she had used anabolic steroids or other banned performance-enhancing drugs. The dispatches left the impression that Smith had risen overnight to the top of the Olympic podium from some swimming netherworld. In truth she had been ranked as the second-fastest female swimmer in the world in two events at the end of 1995. The media suggested that in the months leading up to the Games, Smith had sliced huge chunks off her personal-best times. That wasn't true either. There was scant mention that Smith's winning times in Atlanta, while all personal bests, set no world records. Or that Smith passed her four drug tests in Atlanta, just as she has passed every other drug test she has ever taken. That information was considered proof of nothing: In Atlanta virtually nobody was flunking drug tests.
Smith had indeed made amazing progress, but over three years, not a few months. She was not ranked among the top 25 female swimmers in the world at any distance in any stroke in 1993. In '94 she was 14th and 17th in two events; by '95 she was second in two events and 10th and 13th in two others; and in "96 she won three Olympic races. Rivals said that such a progression was unheard-of for a swimmer in her 20s. Smith said that in '93, while bouncing back from a debilitating bout of the viral disease glandular fever (formally known as mononucleosis), she had begun devoting herself fanatically to the training methods of Erik de Bruin—a Dutchman who became Smith's boyfriend, then her coach and, five weeks before the Olympics, her husband—and that the combination of her hard work and de Bruin's coaching had led to her dramatic improvement.
What remains unknown is whether the reputation and achievements of the Irish swimmer have been cruelly maligned, or whether she has perpetrated a fraud, cheating her fellow competitors—or at least those not using banned substances—and the sports-watching public. This much may be stated unequivocally: Michelle Smith didn't rise from a netherworld to her Olympic triumphs, but she certainly lives in a netherworld now.
Reporters tend to cover the Olympics in a state of annoyed frenzy; the atmosphere in the working areas set up for the press is about what you'd find in the kitchen of a giant catering operation. In Atlanta the media contingent comprised several thousand men and women, most of them earnest, all on deadline, trying to satisfy the world's ferocious daily appetite for "stories." In such an environment, apparently contradictory facts tend not to be carefully weighed—there is little time—so instinct takes over. Many members of the U.S. swimming establishment suspected that Smith had used performance-enhancing drugs, and that suspicion was widely disseminated by the journalists in Atlanta. The result, more than half a year later, is that sales of Smith's post-Olympic instant biography are negligible in England, and the book is not available in the U.S. Even in Ireland—even in Dublin, where Smith's family has lived for centuries—there are taxi drivers and nurses and bank tellers who will tell you that the accomplishments of Michelle Smith are a sham.
She does have support in her homeland. On a weekday afternoon last November, at Easons, a two-story bookstore on Shop Street in the western port city of Galway, Smith was on the second floor signing copies of her book, Gold: A Triple Champion's Story, written with Irish sportswriter Cathal Dervan. A couple of hundred people, copies of Gold in hand, stood in a long queue that curled through the store and up the stairs. The autograph-seekers leaned against shelves that held volumes by Joyce and Wilde and Beckett. They waited cheerfully, many of them for more than an hour, to gain a half-minute audience with Smith. A large percentage of them were girls, exuberant and skinny and wearing the dark, V-necked sweaters of their parochial schools. More than a few of them, inspired by the champion who sat before them, carried bathing suits and goggles in their knapsacks.
Smith smiled nicely for the girls and their camera-wielding mums. She wore chic cream-colored wool pants, a matching jacket and a simple gold necklace. Her face looked rounder and softer than it does on the back jacket of her book. In that photograph, taken in the pool in Atlanta after one of Smith's victories, her flexed left arm looks as if it belongs to a strong man, and her jawline seems to be on loan from Mark Messier, the New York Ranger with the haunting, prehistoric face. Smith signed the proffered books with penmanship that was careful and girlish, right down to the tiny circle with which she topped off the second letter of Michelle. One girl examined her newly acquired autograph with bulging eyes. She turned to Smith and said, "Tankya, Meeshell." Then she ran off. Smith smiled sweetly again.