Look up the Olympic record books and you’ll find Michelle Smith’s name written large. The Atlanta Games, 1996: 400m freestyle Gold, M Smith (Ireland); 200m individual medley Gold, M Smith (Ireland); 400m individual medley Gold, M Smith (Ireland); 200m butterfly Bronze, M Smith (Ireland). Three Golds and one Bronze at a celebration of the Games in which no other Irish athlete made the podium.
There were five Irish winners in London, one winning Gold, one Silver and three Bronze. Which of the hauls was the more valuable, the one from 1996 or the one from 2012? Which, indeed, was the better Team Ireland performance?
Most Irish commentators gave given their verdict in a roundabout way by saying this year was the country’s best since Melbourne in 1956, when the medal collection was identical – a Gold for Ronnie Delany, a Silver for Fred Tiedt, and a Bronze each for Freddie Gilroy, John Caldwell and Drogheda’s own, Tony ‘Socks’ Byrne.
No mention of Michelle Smith. It’s been as if Atlanta didn’t happen, that it was all the figment of some storyteller or film-maker’s imagination.
But it was real, Smith swimming her way to glory in this her third Olympic sortie. She’d been to Seoul in 1988 as an 18-year-old and Barcelona, four years later. Neither trip brought her any luck, but before heading for Atlanta she won two Golds and a Silver at the European Championships, and in the same competition the year after she’d taken the Olympics by storm, won two more Golds and two Silvers.
By the time she headed for Seville for the Euros in 1997, however, she was shrouded in controversy. Allegations of dope-taking, which she has always denied, had been made against her. They weren’t proven and that’s why her name appears on the record-books. But she was found guilty of tampering with a urine sample, leading to her being banned from swimming.
Guilty or not guilty? Judges, not to mention juries, with pens, pencils, laptops and computers at the ready, have given their verdict in recent weeks with their silence. And they’ll do so again come Rio in four years’ time.
An aside: the American swimmer, Janet Evans, one of the big fancies for Atlanta, but unable to make a splash, whinged when Smith succeeded, but later apologised for what she had said. After Katie Taylor won Gold in London, the boxer she beat in the final had this to say in addition to behaving like a real prat at the presentation ceremony: “Ireland is in financial crisis because they’ve spent all their money on Taylor’s referees.”
Let’s hope this little pup has, like Evans, the good grace to apologise. No, better that she’s in the opposite corner for some future Taylor fight.