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September 22, 2000
US offers to say sorryThe Rediff Team
As ploys go, this one would be worthy of a Garry Kasparov manouevre on the chess board.
Shortly after Inge 'Inky' de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband upstaged the fancied Americans and Australians in the Sydney pool, head coach of the US women's swimming team Richard Quick brought up the drugs bogey, referring to the fast times being set, and alleging that the Games were't drug-free.
Now, men's team head coach Mark Schubert says that Quick's comments weren't directed at the Dutch. "I hope the Dutch swimmers didn't take it that way," Schubert said.
Some hope -- given the timing of the charge, it is hard to imagine who else Quick could have been referring to. The Australians? The Americans themselves? Or the Italians? Those three nations are, after all, the only ones besides the Dutch to have sizzled in the pool.
"There are lots of great performances going on in Sydney that are clean," Schubert said.
The US head swim coach says he is prepared to apologise to the Dutch, "if they have been hurt."
What is interesting is the effect of the controversy, now into its second day. By bringing up the drugs bogey, Quick effectively tarnished the wins by Hoogenband and de Bruijn, without ever putting himself in a position where he was directly accountable for his words. He never mentioned the Dutch, but from the timing of his words, and the fact that the Dutch were the only ones other than Australian and American swimmers consistently setting world records, the implication was unmistakable.
And now, an apology -- if the Dutch want it.
In the meantime, the drugs accusation has been picked up by sections of the media, feeding the prejudice of an Australian nation rudely awakened from its dream of ruling the pool.
The case of 'Inky' de Bruijn is a classic instance of damning by media, without ever really coming out and saying something.
Much, thus, is being made of the fact that Aussie swimming star Susie O'Neill did not go up to de Bruijn and congratulate her after the Dutch girl won the 100m butterfly final. Every other swimmer in the race did.
O'Neill had, famously, a couple of years ago insinuated that de Bruijn's sudden re-emergence from swimming's wilderness was fishy. And promptly retracted the allegation, sending the Dutch swimmer an email apology.
In this context, the fact that O'Neill failed to congratulate de Bruijn is being given a sinister connotation. 'Susie won't shake hands with cheats' is the popular explanation.
It could be that O'Neill was upset after losing a race she was favoured to win, and wherein she was, for every stroke of the way, cheered on by a hugely partisan home crowd. It could be that O'Neill was just being a bad sport, a grouchy loser.
That is not a fair thing to say about a swimmer who has graced the sport, competing at the highest level for years.
But then, it is equally unfair to taint the Dutch star with drugs. Sans any evidence, what is more.
What is being offered as proof is that de Bruijn has never won an Olympic or world championship medal till she got to Sydney.
That in 1992, in Barcelona, she was thrown out of the Dutch team for not taking sufficient interest in the action. That she was kicked out of the team for the same reason in the Atlanta Games of 1996.
That in 1991 and 1994, she did not contest the freestyle sprints at the world championships.
That last year, at a meet in Hong Kong, she finished fifth in freestyle.
That she is the same age -- 27 -- as Jenny Thompson of the USA and Susie O'Neill, but while they are waning, she is flourishing (which, incidentally, ignores the fact that both Thompson and O'Neill have already won golds in Sydney -- hardly a symptom of 'waning').
That Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, after being among the also-rans for years, emerged in Atlanta to win three golds at age 26. That Smith's boyfriend and coach was a Dutch shotput champion then under suspension for steroid use. That though Smith has never tested positive, she was thought to have interfered with a drug test.
That de Bruijn's boyfriend is Dutch.
What is not being given the same prominence is the fact that de Bruijn, for all her obvious talent, had never taken the sport seriously until 1998, when she linked up with coach Paul Bergen. Who motivated her to love the sport enough to want to excel in it, and who for the first time introduced for her a cross training programme wherein she spent almost as much time rope climbing, lifting weights and practising Karate as she did perfecting her swimming strokes. Bergen also made her swim with weights strapped to her legs, and wearing shoes, to increase the difficulty-levels and push her further.
Interestingly, Hoogenband has been on a similar programme, albeit under a different coach, from late 1998 onwards.
What is not mentioned is that de Bruijn has never refused to take a drug test. (And when this is mentioned, it is with the codicil that drug cheating technology is even more sophisticated than testing technology -- a theory that glosses over the fact that it could apply just as much to a Thompson or an O'Neill as a de Bruijn).
Interestingly, the Olympic Games organisers, miffed by Quick's allegations, wanted him to explain why he said what he did. The only explanation Quick had was that it was a gut thing, an instinct thing -- that he felt "something was not clean in the pool".
Now, Quick's boss says he will say sorry -- if the Dutch want it.
The Dutch want the 50m freestyle gold -- and on Friday, both de Bruijn and Hoogenband will return to the acquatic centre to try for it.
Read earlier story: US swim coach raises drugs bogey
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