As you browse the newspaper archives, it is always fascinating to see what has changed over the past 25 years.
or for example, in 1996 the Independent Irish comfortably made headlines which described Bill Clinton as a ‘family man’, Pádraig Harrington was just a future star with dreams for the Ryder Cup and Dustin Turkey still had some musical reputation with a number one hit .
But one thing that never changes is the way the Irish worship a sports hero who takes this little country to the top of the podium.
This year we were treated to the golden hue of Kellie Harrington, Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy in Tokyo. Nine years ago, Katie Taylor turned on the green light in London, which ended a long wait since Michael Carruth won gold at Barcelona in 1992.. . as some RTÉ viewers have been led to believe when covering the success of rowers McCarthy and O’Donovan in Japan.
The national broadcaster’s presenters have come under fire for bypassing a Golden Honor Roll entry when discussing previous heroes, and an old debate has resumed in Irish society.
For those who may not remember, let me offer a brief summary of this winner.
Swimmer Michelle Smith won three gold and one bronze at the 1996 Olympics. She was the first woman to win an Olympic gold for Ireland and is the most successful athlete to date. from the country.
The then 26-year-old had competed in the previous two Olympics, but was far from producing that kind of performance. She attributed her improvements in the years leading up to Atlanta to a new training program she started in the Netherlands after the Barcelona Games in 1992, led by her Dutch husband Erik de Bruin, whom she met. in Barcelona.
Other explanations for this stellar rise included the use of a new swimsuit. Smith wrote in his diary in the Independent Irish that “The new Speedo Aquablade, as it is called, is revolutionary in its design”, goes on to explain the advantages of the new material of the suit and how it generates less water resistance than the skin.
However, Smith’s dramatic improvements in the years after Barcelona caught people’s attention and his competitors noticed a drastic change in his physique.
“We were at a World Cup and I noticed her physical appearance had changed significantly,” said Canadian Marianne Limpert, 1996 silver medalist behind Smith in the 200-meter IM.
“I said ‘wow, I guess she trains a lot harder’, but an older teammate of mine looked at me and said ‘I think it’s not just training. “
And in Atlanta, his counterparts were openly discussing their suspicions that his success was the result of something more than just innovative training methods.
“If you’re asking if the charges exist (about Michelle) then yes they are because it’s a huge downfall,” said American swimmer Janet Evans.
“It’s debatable, but it is possible,” she added.
Circumstantial evidence would, in most cases, be inevitable. His partner, Erik, was a shot putter who was banned after testing positive for a banned substance in 1993, during which time he and Michelle lived together.
He had previously spoken quite freely to the Dutch newspaper by Volkskrant when he expressed how much he laughed at the way convicted doping agent Ben Johnson won medals in Seoul in 1988, he was still the hero of these Games.
Add to that the scale and timeline of Smith’s improvement in the pool, which has been described as unprecedented outside of the Communist world. She was reaching an age where, due to the maturation of a female body, she should have slowed down. But the time for Smith to win her first gold in the 400m individual medley was 19 seconds faster than the time she had posted in Barcelona.
While conducting research for Contaminated gold: Michelle Smith’s story Podcast the part of this saga that surprised me the most is how early the battle lines were drawn and how far they stretched between those of the media.
These days, impressionable young journalists start their way by being dragged into a room only to be told bluntly to prepare for living in a world where the search for the truth can lead to being the most hated person in the room.
Of course, in the real world things are rarely black and white, but after Smith became the Golden Daughter of Ireland, a monochrome divide in Irish media and Irish society quickly formed out of Ireland. ‘a way that doesn’t happen very often here, and it has produced two camps. divided on whether they believed her.
It started with sharp questioning by American journalists in Georgia, a line that prompted President Bill Clinton to apologize for “all the bullshit” thrown at Smith by American reporters.
The international flavor of this battle is reflected in the words of Michelle’s father, Brian, who said, “Americans have been caught red-handed drugs. No Irishman has ever been caught in the act of drugs because no Irishman ever takes drugs. Americans are not in a position to slander. “
If you’re Irish and object to the more direct and sometimes less respectful nature of American journalists, it’s understandable that you think the “Yanks” were sore losers and that Smith did nothing wrong.
And there were a few stubborn truths that you can refer to if you’re on the pro-Smith side of the division.
She passed all the doping tests at the Games, her times did not break any world or Olympic records and some of her opponents were the same age, so some have argued that she was no exception in this regard.
Smith defended his reputation at the Games, stating categorically, “I won’t let that joy take anything away. I really worked so hard. I have put my whole life into the last three and a half years and this is the result. No one can take these medals away from me.
It was good enough for politicians and those who wanted to capitalize on the national vibe. This circumstantial evidence which would, in most cases, be inevitable still posed so many questions, but for some, dodging it has become a practice because protecting the aura around a national hero has taken precedence over the need to ask. questions and clarify what was really going on.
Some really believed her. For others, avoiding the debate seemed to have its advantages – RTÉ, which awarded his 1996 Sports Personality of the Year and paid little attention to skeptics, landed a publicity bargain worth £ 500,000 in Smith’s gold triplet.
And when a national hero is involved, and you can still hear Amhrán na bfFiann playing in your ears from Atlanta, being the Irish person asking these questions can take its toll. The reality of being the most hated person in the room hits hard as the legitimate search for answers turned into a witch hunt for those who wanted to believe in the fairy tale of the Golden Girl of Ireland.
Paul Kimmage recounts how he was “tortured” by what he had to write, and called the division a “dirty war”.
Even years after 1996, and the hearings that followed in the years following a falsified drug test at Michelle’s home in 1998, people are telling stories of lingering animosity.
Maybe the RTÉ presenters have bluntly forgotten about Michelle’s medal crop on live TV, or maybe all the major players in one of Irish sport’s most incredible stories are trying to rewrite history. , but anyway, it’s not a saga we can afford to forget.
The Irish tend to be pretty proud that we haven’t fallen into the polarizing trap that the Americans and the British have in terms of respecting consensus and common ground.
But sport has revealed our ability as a nation to cover our eyes with the green jersey, tear ourselves apart and learn to disagree on basic facts.
Stories like Smith’s are a reminder that facts, truth, and integrity matter in all walks of life, but sometimes we can forget it in favor of what the public wants.
When you listen to the podcast, you realize how personal this story has become and how the scars still remain 25 years later. And whether you see Michelle Smith’s medals as a triumph or a parody, they should always be worth a debate.
If you believe her, let them be symbols of joy, but we should all keep them as a reminder that integrity matters – then and now.
Listen to Episode 1 of Tainted Gold: The Michelle Smith Story now on Independent.ie or wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to episode 2 on Wednesday and the last part on Friday