Saturday 23 September 2017

Paul Kimmage: There was a crime and there is a punishment

Michelle de Bruin may still have her Olympic medals, but seriously what are they worth?

Michelle Smith arrives in Dublin after the 1996 Olympic games where she won three gold medals and one bronze. Photo: David Maher
Michelle Smith arrives in Dublin after the 1996 Olympic games where she won three gold medals and one bronze. Photo: David Maher
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'Following initial correspondence, Michelle Smith's formal response is as follows: "Newstalk requested me to comment on an interview which was conducted with Allison Wagner and Nikki Dryden in which comments were made about me. Newstalk has refused to furnish me with a copy of the interview, or a transcript of the interview, in order that I can comment on what has been said about me.

Regards, Michelle

Triple Olympic champion, 1996.'"

- Ger Gilroy, Off The Ball

I spend the hours tossing and turning with their faces in my head, wrestling with a distant memory from 1996: his face, because I'm sure he made a speech that night, and now he was back making news for the Rugby World Cup bid: her face, because they gave her a standing ovation that night, and now she was back making news like an arm reaching from the grave.

Three o'clock.

Was it December or January?

Four o'clock.

Was it The Burlington or The Berkeley Court?

Five o'clock.

Was he Tánaiste that year?

It's driving me crazy.

I abandon the bed, open my laptop and key some details into the browser:

Dick Spring . . . Michelle Smith. . . Texaco Awards.

It's showing a LinkedIn page, a Dublin City Council page, a "hot springs" story from The Sunday World and a couple of "big dick" porn sites.

So I shower and change and spend the morning at the National Library, trawling through the newspaper archives for that winter:

October 11: Triple Olympic champion Michelle Smith was guest of honour at the American Celtic Ball of the Ireland Chamber of Commerce in the USA in New York on Wednesday.

October 23: Michelle Smith received the substantial reward of a £30,000 Achievement Bonus for her exploits at the Atlanta Games from the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) at a function in Jury's Hotel, Ballsbridge yesterday. "This is an important token of our appreciation of Michelle's outstanding performances and we hope to introduce another Achievement Bonus for the Sydney 2000 games, subject to the success of our commercial sponsorship and marketing activity," said Pat Hickey, president of the OCI.

November 5: A wide range of options are still floating around in the world of Ireland's triple Olympic gold medallist swimmer. A film possibility, an interest in television journalism and the resumption of her swimming career are all on the horizon for Michelle Smith. "I've had offers of work in Ireland and I've done some work promoting TnaG. I'd like to do more work for them in the future.

"There has also been some interest in making a film and I've been in touch with an international company with interests in the UK and America. I've been speaking with International Creative Management (ICM) who handle people like Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson. They don't handle many athletes, but they came to me a couple of weeks after the Olympics."

November 13: Ms Smith received her award for achieving an unequalled level of success for an Irish athlete. Her citation said she had displayed "charm, personality and eloquence that brought honour to the country, as well as the endorsement of the President of the United States, Mr Bill Clinton."

November 15: The Employee Relations Conference is the nearest thing IBEC has to a trade union delegate conference. Yesterday's meeting had the theme, "Competitive Edge Through People". It was opened by triple Olympic gold medallist Ms Michelle Smith and the emphasis was on developing entrepreneurial spirit and coming to grips with the "corporate global village" created by new technology.

November 26: Ireland's triple gold medallist Michelle Smith has been nominated for the 1997 Jesse Owens International Trophy Award.

December 13: Olympic swimming champion Michelle Smith last night received the Freedom of South Dublin at a ceremony in Tallaght. The triple gold medallist is the first citizen of South Dublin to receive the honour of the freedom of the area and she will be the first signatory of a new register for future honoured citizens.

December 19 (letter to The Irish Times about the Phillips Sports Awards): "Surely, Erik de Bruin deserved the manager/coach of the year award? Erik's contribution to Michelle's Olympic medals was not lost on the sporting public of Ireland. No disrespect to Liam Griffin, but Erik de Bruin and Michelle Smith have made Irish Olympic history."

January 25: Bestsellers (Hardback non-fiction):

1 Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

2 Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan

3 My Life and Times by Micheál O'Hehir

4 Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham

5 Gold by Michelle Smith

. . . and so many accolades and prizes: The 'Gold Trophy' from China's biggest sports magazine; the RTé Irish Sports Personality of the Year award, the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year award; the European Swimmer of the Year award. But nothing about Spring or the Texaco awards.

But I can still see her now in that elegant evening gown. And I can still hear him now - the clipped delivery, the nasal tone - as he started to speak. The old stage with the Pantheon façade and those magnificent statuettes. The ballroom dotted with round linen-draped tables and the crème-de-la-crème of Irish society. And the ovation when he had finished his speech.

Yeah, mostly I remember the ovation.

The whole room standing to applaud. The dagger stares for Jacqui O'Sullivan - the wife of Sunday Independent sports editor, Adhamhnan O'Sullivan - and another of the paper's scribes, as they sat rooted to their chairs in protest, sending a message that would gain credence two years later and one that every winner should heed.

"We reserve the right to applaud."

As Smith was being feted in Dublin, Allison Wagner, a gifted 19-year-old from Gaineseville in Florida, was struggling to come to terms with her "failure" at the Games. In 1994, she had finished second twice at the World Championships in Rome behind two questionable performances by Chinese swimmers. Two years later, she finished second to another questionable performance from Smith in Atlanta.

Her silver medal felt worthless. She lost a scholarship for college, suffered a series of eating disorders, was burnt out from training and fell out of love with life. "It destroyed me and I let it destroy me," she says.

On Wednesday, in an interview on 'Off The Ball', Ger Gilroy suggested that she had paid a high price.

"It was an extraordinary price," she concurred. "It was completely unfair on so many levels, and this is something people don't think about when they think about athletes who cheat."

Retrospective justice is her new mission in life. With the lawyer Nikki Dryden - a former Canadian Olympic swimmer - they're pushing for a complete review of the anti-doping system and to "establish a protocol to review instances of doping and suspected doping for athletes at Olympic Games prior to Sydney 2000".

"It would great to have the feeling of justice being served," she says. "And I don't have a lot of those experiences."

But what if justice, or some form of it at least, has been served?

Michelle Smith hasn't opened many supermarkets since her four-year ban for tampering with a urine sample in 1998. There was a brief appearance nine years ago in 'Celebrities Go Wild' and one interview recently in Woman's Way but you won't find her on the Second Captains' 'Good Wall' or in many of the 'Ireland's Greatest Sport Star' lists. Even her old friend Pat Hickey turned his back on her.

She's still a triple Olympic champion of course and has the medals to prove it. But seriously, what are they worth?

Whenever I think of her these days, I am reminded of the closing scene in Presumed Innocent - the brilliant Scott Turow thriller starring Harrison Ford - when Rusty discovers that his wife is the murderer and that he will carry her secret to the grave. The burden is crippling, but he knows deep down, that it's a price he must pay and acknowledges it in the movie's final line. And so it is for Michelle.

"There was a crime. There was a victim. There is a punishment."

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