Those with most to lose from athletics being rotted by drugs will tell you Usain Bolt rescued their sport. But the rest of us need to get real and see track and field for the lie it is, writes Ewan MacKenna.
Did you hear the one about Usain Bolt being the saviour of athletics? If brevity is the soul of wit, then the set-up and punchline all in one sentence is comedic genius.
Last Sunday, when the Jamaican recaptured the 100m crown at the world championships, that was the joke being spluttered out by all those with most to lose from the cheating rampant within the sport. From media who’d invested in coverage such as the BBC who offered the above sentiment but were far from alone, to sponsors like Nike who’ve poured money into icons regardless of their pasts or presents, to the IAAF who for years managed the doping problem behind the scenes rather than tackling it where we can all see.
For those groups, it didn’t matter that second place in the blue-riband race was doper Justin Gatlin, that fifth was doper Mike Rodgers, that sixth was doper Tyson Gay, that seventh was doper Asafa Powell. It didn’t matter that a 100m gold went to Shelly-Ann Fraser, a 400m and discuss silver went to LaShawn Merritt and Sandra Perković, and a pole vault bronze went to Piotr Lisek, all dopers who’d been caught in the past but are back keeping others from podiums. (That’s before we get to 800m bronze medalist Amel Tuka who put a four-second improvement down to God.) It didn’t matter Kenya were remarkable in their medal haul – beyond long-distance into strength and speed – having been named a hot-bed of doping. It didn’t matter that their two athletes caught during the week were nobodies as if to say winners never dope, only lesser athletes that can afford to be sacrificed.
All that did matter was this was the mask they could cower behind without a trace of ashamedness, never realising that the best way to overpower a flood of doubt is with a tsunami of truth. Of course that is not to link Bolt to any wrongdoing by association but such is the chasm, even he cannot fill it for while he may be the face of athletics, the body is diseased beyond the point of return. But there are also some facts and realities around the 100m champion that warrant attention, if not yet judgment.
Firstly, when it comes to Bolt himself. Of the five fastest men in history, he is the only one to never test positive for a banned substance. Only two other times amongst the top 60 ever belong to athletes who’ve never been positive. Not only is he better than those who have cheated, he’s so much better. The gap between his world record and the best time run by anyone else covers the gap between that next best time and the following 38 across history. Indeed Bolt owns 26 of the 100 quickest times ever.
Secondly, when it comes to Bolt’s sport. Here there’s a 100 per cent correlation between power output and performance. Yet despite this, the governing body have done little about an epidemic of illegally influencing that. Earlier this month leaked documents showed 800 athletes out of 5,000 tested between 2001 and 2012 had given blood samples that were highly suggestive of doping, a third of medals in endurance events at Olympics and worlds were won by athletes who recorded suspicious tests and questions surround at least 10 London medalists. The IAAF themselves rubbished these reports only to later suspend 28 nameless athletes they’d had the suspect data on for years.
Thirdly, when it comes to Bolt’s nation for his environment may be a product of him these days, but initially he was a product of Jamaica. That’s not his fault, but it is an issue because of the Caribbean island’s attitude. The Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission was only established in 2008 and for much of the time since has been a disaster to the point their lack of action saw threats as severe as expulsion from the next Olympics. Bolt’s own reaction to this wasn’t an attack on their practices however, rather an annoyance that penalties imposed on the country had cost him a potential sponsor.
By 2013, all of Jadco resigned after a former official said only one out-of-competition test was carried out between February 2012 and the start of the Olympics. Former World Anti-Doping chief Dick Pound said, “It’s clear that there’s been a failing… They were doing almost no testing on their top-level athletes in the period leading to Beijing and London. You had a complete dominance of both of those competitions by those athletes. Such enormous dominance is of itself suspicious.”
In fact of the nine Jamaican track medals won aside from Bolt’s individual efforts in Beijing, four belong to dopers. By London that figure had reached seven of 10. Jamaica’s defence has been wide-ranging across a period, particularly in 2008 and 2009, when Jadco was a front and the nation went from being a good sprinting country to a monster. In particular they said Wada was there to test the best, yet Pound added, “As soon as you arrive, everyone knows and it’s very hard to find people. You can miss up to three tests before you’re deemed to have tested positive but you can’t refuse a test so it’s much easier to get ‘lost’.” It gets worse. Dr Paul Wright, the country’s most senior drug tester has said their spate of failed tests might be the “tip of an iceberg” as they’d been in-competition. “If you fail an in-competition test,” he noted, “you haven’t only failed a drugs test, you have failed an IQ test”.
All of this has happened in the time that Bolt has been leading the sport and, as such, it’s difficult to see how one more win in the exact same context will change absolutely anything. It’s not to implicate Bolt either but to explain the toxic environment in which he exists and his sport chokes. He’s been a prodigy since a young age, is also the most talented athlete in sprint history, but forever his name will be tarnished by many he shared a track with. And we aren’t just talking about those who’ve been caught as for all the positive tests, just consider those who got away.
Athletes like to talk about how easy it is to accidentally slip up – our favourite was the aforementioned Merritt blaming penis enlargement pills for three failed tests – but you won’t hear many athletes talk about how easy it is to slip through. With the margins in track and field so small there’s no need to dope like in the past, instead microdosing can make the difference without anywhere near the risk.
For instance, when measuring synthetic versions of natural hormones, the test is the T/E ratio with the letters standing for testosterone and epitestosterone, a natural product of steroid metabolism that provides no benefit. Most people are 1/1 but WADA’s limit is 4/1 while this ratio rapidly returns to normal, and adding epitestosterone balances it out. CIR testing can help by measuring carbon atoms in urine but is expensive and only tends to be done after the T/E jumps out while microdosing gets around it too. In terms of the relatively new biological passports, in 2008 and 2009 Lance Armstrong upon his return posted tests to clear any doubt and while they showed a blood profile that shouldn’t have been natural, they still didn’t reach a definitive level for a positive. In dealing with human growth hormone, the ratio used in the isoform test returns to normal in hours. Meanwhile the University of Oslo showed muscles can retain the advantages given by anabolic steroids decades after taken.
It makes it all like struggling with the Leaving Cert despite hard study, seeing the person beside with textbooks open on the desk, apologising, getting huge points, heading for a high-paying career while your honesty is rewarded with social welfare. Of course you won’t hear such a comparison from many of the stakeholders in athletics who are all about short-term salvation. According to them their sport is now on the right path after Bolt’s victory. Then again, we already explained comedic genius.