Smirnov won the gold medal in individual men's foil at the 1980 Summer Olympics. He won the World Championships the following year.
During the 1982 World Championships in Rome, Smirnov was fencing Matthias Behr of West Germany. Behr's blade broke during the action. The broken blade went through the mesh of Smirnov's mask, through his eye, and into his brain. Smirnov died nine days later.