Tuesday 27 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: 'It was obvious that a 26-year-old Irish girl was about to become the big story. The question for journalists was how they would interpret it'

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

President Bill Clinton meets Michelle Smith after she won the third of her three gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. Photo: Getty
President Bill Clinton meets Michelle Smith after she won the third of her three gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. Photo: Getty

A day before Atlanta's Opening Ceremony three of us had lunch in the Main Press Centre, Michelle on our minds.

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The other two were unambiguous about where they stood. That is, they did not believe in the looming fairytale. They considered her story a swindle and sensed it was now about to dominate the first week of the 25th Olympiad. "She could win two or three golds, you know?" said one.

"Think I'll vomit if she does!" said the other.

Me? I sat, maybe a little cravenly, committing myself neither one way or the other. Michelle Smith had never tested positive, yet it seemed that - within the swimming community - her name was already synonymous with drugs.

My colleagues' hostility mirrored that of a great raft of journalists, mainly American, who specialised in the sport.

None of them had much appetite for the 'innocent until proved guilty' philosophy, concluding that the transformation in Smith as an athlete from the 1992 Games in Barcelona had been Olympia's equivalent of Bruce Banner suddenly turning green and implausibly muscled.

And that that transformation had been overseen by a man with no swimming background and a ban for doping clearly added ballast to their arguments.

One of many journalistic hazards of covering an Olympics is how, from a position of blissful ignorance for the previous four years, the writer must - suddenly - feign knowledge and understanding of minority sports that get catapulted fleetingly into the public psyche.

It was patently obvious in the microwave heat of Atlanta that a 26-year-old Irish girl was about to become the story. The only question for the journalist to answer was how they were going to interpret it.

My two lunch pals had their minds long since made up and, in part, I envied their certainty.

But maybe I was also a little startled by their venom. And maybe, on a certain level, I saw in that venom some kind of bogus disloyalty.

To them, the Michelle Smith story would be an exploration of everything that was utterly putrid in sport. They could not prove it (not yet at least), but they saw her as a brazen fraud.

My first Olympics was inviting me to back a horse then. So I went and backed the wrong one.

Reading back now through my coverage from that first tumultuous week of Atlanta '96 is not a comfortable experience. I chose, essentially, to wave the tricolour. Phone calls to home would confirm the national giddiness at Smith's triumphs in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre and my articles were routinely faithful to that energy.

Anyway, there were always little, empty arguments to toss back at her accusers.

Like how, contrary to the view that Smith's age should militate against her prospects of success, the girls who finished second and fourth in the freestyle final were also 26. Like how so many different, supposedly informed, voices, would argue stridently in her favour.

Like French swimmer, Yann de Fabrique, telling the 'Atlanta Journal': "People just can't accept that someone new has stepped out."

Like Pierre Lafontaine, who had coached Smith in Phoenix and Calgary between '88 and '92, arguing, "She's the toughest trainer I ever worked with. The three years she was with me, she went boom, boom, boom. Faster and faster."

Like how Official America seemed somewhat mortified at the cattiness of its media and swimmers, Bill Clinton even requesting a meeting with Smith to offer congratulations and Jimmy Carter throwing an arm around her in the press conference room. Two US presidents telling her that the accusations were muck.

But did I honestly believe that?

Maybe the answer was in my reaction to her late arrival onto the pool-deck for the 200 metres butterfly final, her last race of the Olympics. When only seven swimmers emerged into the evening sun, I recall a big American journalist jumping to his feet yelling, "It's happened, it's happened. Look who's missing from lane five."

And I was one of those instantly vaulting down the concrete steps in search of an explanation for her no-show, only for Smith to come strolling out from the call room seconds later, after tracking down a replacement pair of goggles, the strap on her own having broken.

Deep down, I suspect that that reaction contradicted everything I had written.

But, boy, she was persuasive. When Janet Evans went on the warpath, Michelle's approach had been to meet her with heavy artillery of her own. She suggested that Evans maybe try explaining a 400 metres freestyle swim from eight years earlier "in a time she has never come close to again..."

You read that now and wonder at the ease with which, when under attack, she chose to return mud rather than simply take exception to the graceless climate building. Back then? I took to painting that very moxy as evidence of innocence. I kept piling coal into the furnace of that lie.

In doing so, I drove a wedge between myself and the journalists who kept challenging the national euphoria and, in some instances, imperilled their own employment status by doing so. Michelle's record of never having tested positive damned them in the eyes of so many now being swept away on the wave of national hysteria.

Technically, of course, the medals Smith won in Atlanta still position her as Ireland's most successful Olympian. But the events that unspooled at Kellsgrange House on a January morning in 1998 eventually discredited everything.

That episode of the 'whiskey in the jar' erased the cartoon. It was said that, if Smith's body had contained the alcohol-to-blood ratio found in the urine sample opened in Barcelona, she would have been hopelessly inebriated.

With suspension looming, an 11-page statement was prepared by her solicitor before further news came their way from FINA. It hadn't just been whiskey located in her urine, but traces of a metabolic precursor of testosterone. And two years to the day from winning her third gold medal at the Atlanta Games, Smith was in Lausanne, at the Court of Arbitration for Sports, appealing a four-year ban.

The Court dismissed her appeal.

As Smith's house of cards fell, the late, great Irish Independent editor, Vinnie Doyle, challenged me to write the newspaper's editorial. We'd been so resolutely pro-Michelle during Atlanta, we'd even signed her up for a ghost-written column. Now all that gold was rust.

It seemed the horse we'd backed might have had an electric motor.

Irish Independent

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