20 Years On: Is Michelle Smith The Least Lauded Triple Olympic Champion In History?

The cover of Gold - Michelle Smith with Cathal Dervan

This week 20 years ago, Michelle Smith won three gold and 1 bronze in the pool at the Atlanta 1996 Games. As doping issues threaten to rock the Rio 2016 Games, we look back at a fallen star who kept her medals It was at the 1972 Munich Olympics when an Irish report rehashed an…

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I was never more satisfied watching a swim race as I watched Susie O’Neill swam so gutsy from the start and destroyed MIchelle Smith. The icing on the cake was Petria Thomas getting silver ahead of the big doper.


Being Irish, and less cynical than I am today, I was quite happy to take it as true at the time. The national broadcaster instructed commentators to make no mention of doping as it was all happening instead of asking the relevant questions. One or two journalists were willing but it all took a while to sink in after she was caught but even after that, remarkably, she had her supporters; even one or two to this day. There have been a few articles in the Irish media of late bringing the subject back into focus which have been important as the event seemed to fade from memory. A younger audience will now be made aware of this story. I would like to see this article being reprinted in some of the papers here as it gives greater depth and detail of the circumstances.


Ah …. memories !! I cannot claim any expert insight into this episode but one couldn’t help getting a whiff of something untoward.

When Smith first made her entry into the business end of the charts in 94; my response was along the lines of “a swimmer from Ireland, don’t see too many of those”. It was 95 when we saw a continued rise that had me thinking “she’s now a potential contender, lets look further”.

Had she been teenage and we seen these advances then really no trip wires would’ve been sprung but when I read mid 20’s with an otherwise undistinguished record ….. that’s a significant anomaly even in major swimming nations let alone one with zero history.

I was in Atlanta as an official in another sport but the word I was hearing from people in swimming, from a wide cross-section of countries was “something’s very dodgy” with her.

Emil Charpentier

Serves a a reminder of the weak (probably a great understatement) leadership of FINA when it comes to dealing with these issues and ensuring fairness for clean athletes.

Also can’t help but draw some parallels between Michelle Smith and another swimmer who at the same age as MS showed similar progress and also won 3 Olympic golds, coincidentally also having a similar name to that which MS would later take.

I really don’t know enough about the specific circumstances in that case to tell whether it was all do to better training and new suits etc. but in general, it seems like when extraordinary progress well past the teen years has been seen in athletes that have previously not been among the top 10 in the world, there has been cause for suspicion.

On the other hand, much of the swimming community seemed to be implying that Eamon O’Sullivan could be doping back in early 2008, before it became evident that much of his progress on the clock was due to the suits so it is hazardous to speak before you have all facts.

Craig Lord

Emil. Hazardous before all facts it may be but as this file and the 40 years on file show – we must all feel at liberty to ask legitimate questions and raise those in the context of off-the-chart, unique profiles that make the world-class of others suddenly look ordinary. Babashoff uses a phrase in her book that stands out: ‘they never seemed to get tired’ … very telling.

Desmond Maitland


Here is some good to balance the bad and the ugly.

Craig Lord

Thanks Des

Felix Sanchez

This was a very good piece, with a balanced look at the build-up to her ‘success’. However, we do need to be constantly cautious about drawing parallels as not everyone will look at the detail of each case as closely as Craig. It would be all too easy to write off some future swimmer’s rapid improvement by simply alluding to Smith.

The article mentions her efforts as a senior to find success in various locations. This is very important. We can’t expect anything like a standard improvement curve from someone who grew up in a country with no 50m pools, as Smith did. Each case is going to be different, and at times there will be very good reasons why some swimmers – particularly from the weaker nations – improve at unusual times (just not Smith).

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