In the latest doping scandal to rock the sports world, three-time Olympic gold medalist Michelle Smith was banned from swimming for four years Thursday after being found guilty of tampering with a urine sample.
The presence of alcohol, which the doping lab found "is in no way compatible with human consumption," suggested a possible attempt to mask the presence of any banned drugs.
Although Smith escaped the maximum penalty of a life ban, a four-year suspension would effectively end her career. Smith is 28 and would miss the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2001 world championships. The ban goes into effect immediately and prohibits Smith from competing in any national or international competition.
Smith, who has been surrounded by drug allegations since Atlanta, has persistently denied taking performance-enhancing drugs. Her coach and husband is former Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin, who served a four-year ban in track and field after testing positive for high levels of testosterone.
Smith won gold medals at Atlanta in the 400 freestyle, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. She also won a bronze medal in the 200 butterfly.
Her performance at Atlanta was a tremendous jump for someone her age," said American Christina Tuescher, who finished last in the 400 freestyle to Smith at the '96 Games. "I was very suspicious, not only because of her size but she excelled so quickly and there are no Olympic-sized pools in Ireland. Everything was suspicious. I heard she had been dodging drug tests."
"It's no surprise," Teuscher's coach, John Collins, said. "Most people saw that was going to hapen. I heard that people could smell whiskey, that she used whiskey to spoil the sample."
"She's no newcomer to the sport. For 5-6 years before 1996, she was ordinary and the thought was there was no way she could swim that fast. There were suspicions because she was not considered a major player."
Smith is one of the highest-profile athletes ever banned for a doping-related offense. She is believed to be the first world-class athlete ever suspended for manipulating a urine test, as opposed to testing positive for a banned substance.
The ban came four days after the conclusion of the Tour de France, which was overshadowed by a series of scandals indicating widespread use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists, and 10 days after the doping suspensions of U.S. track and field stars Dennis Mitchell and Randy Barnes.
Smith's lawyer, Peter Lennon, would not comment on FINA's ruling until a news conference in Dublin Friday. Lennon previously said he would appeal to a higher authority, such as the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, if Smith was found guilty.
In her only public comments on the allegations against her, Smith read a statement at a news conference in Dublin April 29.
"I am innocent of these charges," she said. "I am appalled at the manner in which they have been leaked into the public domain and I intend fully defending them, if necessary, all to the way to the International Sports Court in Switzerland.
"I have no intention of taking this lying down and I have no intention of being bullied by any organization, national or international."
Smith has been tested often and underwent an out-of-competition urine test in Kilkenny County, Ireland, on Jan. 10.
In April, FINA announced that Smith's samples, tested at the IOC-accredited laboratory in Barcelona, Spain, showed "unequivocal signs of adulteration" and "physical manipulation."
Under FINA rules, tampering with a urine sample is considered as serious as taking steroids.
FINA said Thursday that its investigation found that the urine was "manipulated by the swimmer" but "the way of manipulation is uncertain."
FINA has never explained how alcohol could have found its way into the sample, which the lab said had a "very strong whiskey odor." Two doping control samplers were present while Smith provided the sample.
FINA said it found that the manipulation was not carried out in the laboratory, during the transport or by the collectors of the sample.
The statement said Smith was banned under two rules -- one covering a "a competitor (who) uses or takes advantage of a banned procedure" and the other for "use of substances and methods which alter the integrity and validity of urine samples used in doping control."
Smith and her lawyer appeared at a hearing of FINA's Doping Panel in Lausanne July 24. FINA's statement said Smith "stressed the fct that no banned substance has been detected in her urine" and she stated that "from her side there was no physical manipulation of the sample."
In her last major competition, Smith won two gold medals at the 1997 European Championships.
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