Why Isn't Usain Bolt More Of A Lightning Rod?

Aug 17 2009

bolt(This post badly misrepresents the difference between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay’s 100m times. The actual difference is closer to 1%)

This past weekend, Usain Bolt ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds —by far the best time ever recorded. The performance makes Bolt faster than any other man in history by a full 10%*—roughly the same margin by which Mark McGuire eclipsed Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998.

Don’t take this post as incendiary—I’m hoping as fervently as possible that Bolt’s performances come with no asterisks. I’m just here to point out the fairly easy ride he’s getting.

When Alberto Contador exceeded Riis’ climbing rate by 1% this summer, the whole world muttered “doper”. Just imagine the response if a cyclist broke the current Hour Record by a full five kilometers—the same 10% accomplished by Bolt’s recent 100m performance.

Before 2005, only one man—Maurice Greene—had ever run under 9.8 seconds in the 100m, and even his long and illustrious career, he only ever managed it once. Since 2005, the feat has been accomplished a staggering 18 times by five sprinters—of these, one is currently serving a doping suspension, and another is currently in jail.

If the sudden ability of many athletes to achieve the previously unachievable doesn’t mirror the effects of EPO on cycling, or steroids on the MLB, I don’t know what does. Technical improvements like compression garments or better-designed spikes could be improving times, but advent of dramatically lighter and more aerodynamic parts to the peloton still didn’t explain away the record-setting Tours of the late 90s. Nor did the occasional corked bat prove the innocence of baseball.

Bolt has plenty going in his favor as a a unique specimen among sprinters; even accepting the supposition that something is rotten amongst 100m runners, Bolt is miles beyond them. And for those who believe the absence of evidence argument, he’s never failed a drugs test, nor had anything rumored against him.

But with second-best Tyson Gay revealing his full blood profile, and with suspicion always swirling around how seriously Jamaica takes drug testing, I think an examination of the idea that Bolt just might be doping deserves a little more effort—in fairness to cyclists, at the very least.

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