Of all the analysts, coaches, retired athletes, kinesiologists, politicians, Freakonomists, dieticians and assorted pundits who weighed in on Usain Bolt’s performance last week, perhaps none captured the magnitude of the sprinter’s accomplishment better than Ethan Siegel. An astrophysicist by training, and a data cruncher by inclination, Siegel was in front of his TV in Portland, Ore., when the lanky Jamaican performed the athletic equivalent of a quantum leap at the world track championships, lopping .11 seconds off the world record in the 100-m dash and sending the crowd in Berlin into a frenzy.
Stunned, Siegel proceeded directly to his computer. There he assembled a graph charting world records in the 100 m against time, in hopes of illustrating how radically Bolt’s times diverged from the historical norm. Sure enough, the resulting trend line could be likened to a river emptying over a cliff. Up there was everyone else’s record; down here was Bolt’s—some 30 years ahead of where it should be according to the historical trajectory, and tantalizingly close to the theoretical limit of human velocity. To Siegel, the graph bore out some wild-sounding comparisons he’d been hearing to Bob Beamon, an American long-jumper whose 8.9-m leap in 1968 stood as the world record for 23 years. “I’ve never seen something like this happen in any sport,” he says. Others weren’t so impressed. “I suspect the math behind this performance,” sniffed one commenter on Siegel’s site, “is actually chemistry.”
Bolt? A doper? The competitive spirit recoils at the thought. At 23, the boy with the golden shoes has dashed his way into the hearts of sports fans with eye-popping times and a sense of whimsy that mocks his competitors’ hyper-seriousness. After blowing away the field in the 100 m in Berlin, Bolt moved on to the 200 m with all the solemnity of a sack-racer at a picnic. He mugged for the cameras and joshed with his opponents while milling around the blocks. At times he seemed more preoccupied by the event mascot than the race ahead. Yet there again, he made history, wiping .11 off his own previous world record with a time of 19.19 seconds, and leaving an impressive class of competitors in his dust. Seldom has a sprint final been so lopsided. Never has it looked so fun.
Still, the global exhalation when Bolt tested clean following the 100 m testified to the doubts surrounding the young runner—doubts born of past scandals and fuelled by the sheer improbability of his accomplishment. Since the advent of electronic timing in 1964, no one had legally reduced the 100-m record by more than .07 seconds; Bolt had nearly doubled that margin, which has led to some unpleasant comparisons. The last person to improve a world record by a tenth of a second, after all, was one Ben Johnson, whose 9.83 in August 1987 shattered Calvin Smith’s previous mark of 9.93.
Johnson, one need hardly add, went on to run 9.79 at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul before testing positive for the steroid stanozolol. The Canadian runner’s downfall now stands as the opening chapter in a doping saga that would bring down some of the greatest stars of track and field. All but two of Johnson’s opponents in the 1988 Olympic final were later implicated in doping scandals, including his rival Carl Lewis, whose positive tests had been suppressed by U.S. track authorities. The BALCO scandal followed, laying low the biggest sprinters of the pre-Bolt era, including Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Kelli White of the U.S., along with Dwain Chambers of Britain. For a time, it appeared that drugs were a pass-key to elite sprinting. If you didn’t do them, you didn’t win.
To some observers, this sorry history alone is enough to question the validity of Bolt’s performance. “Next to cycling, track and field is about the most tainted sport there is,” says Charles Yesalis, a retired professor from Penn State University and a prominent critic of anti-doping efforts in elite sport. “If what’s gone on in the past 40 years isn’t enough to raise your suspicion [about Bolt], then about the best thing I can say about you is you’re naive.” Factor the astonishing progression of Bolt’s personal results (since 2007, he has dropped an unheard of .72 seconds from his time in the 200 m) and a fan has every right to second-guess, says Yesalis. “When you train in any sort of athletics, you expect a sort of saw-tooth curve in improvement. In the event of dramatic changes in times or performance, an honest coach or someone in authority should be asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
At least one of Bolt’s former competitors has said as much publicly. After last summer’s Olympics in Beijing, German sprinter Tobias Unger voiced suspicion about Bolt’s imperviousness to fatigue when his times suggest he has been training obsessively, and described the young runner’s dominant Olympic performance as “a farce.” “Bolt didn’t even warm up for the semifinal,” said Unger, who studied sports science in Germany. “He ran a time of 9.8 seconds in May and again at the end of September. He showed no tiredness during training.” Unger, who was knocked out of the Olympics in the semifinals, didn’t outright accuse Bolt of doping. But he did question the rigour of Jamaica’s anti-doping regime. “They do whatever they want on their island,” he said peevishly. “Nothing happens to them.”
In fact, several of Bolt’s teammates have recently run afoul of anti-doping rules in that country. Just one month before the championships in Berlin, five Jamaican runners were called home after testing positive for an unidentified banned substance following the country’s national track championships. The news sent a shock wave through the track world; at least two of the accused athletes trained at the same track club as Bolt. An unnamed official with Jamaica’s anti-doping commission has since been quoted as saying the drug involved is not a steroid. But it’s not like the case has done Bolt any good.
How, then, is a young track star supposed to ease such concerns? Donovan Bailey, Canada’s former Olympic champion, can offer at least a few suggestions from personal experience. He was Track and Field News’s “Sprinter of the Decade” for the 1990s, a period stained by Johnson’s disgrace and beset with subsequent steroid scandals. Bailey’s time of 9.84 in the 100 m at the 1996 Summer Games stood for three years, making him a juicy target for non-believers. So too did his top speed of 12.1 m per second during the final in Atlanta, the fastest any human had been clocked at before Bolt. “For years,” he recalls, “people suspected me of using steroids.”
His response to all this was to embrace the newly instituted drug-testing protocols that most runners loathed, even though they treated everyone in his sport as a suspect. “I was the only athlete who volunteered blood and urine at any occasion whatsoever,” he recalls. “I think that helped wash away the suspicion. We weren’t avoiding the testers. We didn’t have secret training camps anywhere. Anything they wanted we gave it to them.” Bolt has been similarly co-operative with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Bailey notes approvingly, and appears to be aware of the enormous stakes involved. “At the end of the day, it’s his legacy. If he does something silly, all the wonderful things happening to him now will just come back to haunt him.”
Sadly, Bailey’s approach doesn’t work so well today, as events have exposed serious shortcomings in the anti-doping measures since Bailey left the track. Among its many other revelations, the BALCO scandal showed WADA remains vulnerable to so-called “designer” drugs such as the one used by Jones and Montgomery. Designer steroids are often simple molecular variations of existing ones; they slip past the WADA controls because the machines used to screen urine samples aren’t programmed to recognize them. Yesalis and others urged sports authorities years ago to invest in research aimed at identifying new forms steroids might take. Now, with times falling sharply, speculation has mounted that a new, unidentified substance is out there. In the six years after Maurice Greene of the U.S. ran 9.79 in 1999, the record in the men’s 100 m was reduced only once, by a total of .02 seconds; in the three years since, it has come down six times, for a total of .19 seconds.
At the same time, broad-based testing for human growth hormone (HGH), an anabolic agent thought to help athletes train without injury, has been beset by glitches and delays. WADA claimed last year it had developed a foolproof test for the substance. But it admitted it could not yet test during the off-season, when users are most likely to be taking HGH. Moreover, not all countries’ doping commissions are equipped to collect and store the blood samples necessary to administer it. “Unfortunately,” says Yesalis, “I think it’s business as usual for doping athletes.”
That leaves Bolt with little defence against rumour-mongering, and the whispering is bound to get louder. The young star remains years away from his running prime, with many experts predicting he will push the 100-m and 200-m records down further. If that happens, he will find himself hearing the d-word at practically every meet. “I don’t know what else I can say to prove to people I am clean,” he told reporters in Berlin. “I get tested all the time, I train hard, I am legit. Hopefully, if I keep winning and stay clean the questions will go away one day.”
The good news for Bolt is the surfeit of influential track figures willing to make the case that his accomplishments are, in fact, possible without drugs. One of them is Ralph Mann, the director of sprints and hurdling for USA Track and Field and a world authority on the mechanics of sprinting. For years, says Mann, kinesiologists believed 100-m results were constrained by the relatively small size of the runners, most of whom stand under six feet. That’s because times are governed primarily by the speed with which a runner can churn his legs, or what experts call the turnover rate. As a general rule, explains Mann, smaller men can maintain higher turnover rates than tall ones because lifting their limbs requires less work (women can achieve an even faster churn rate than men, he says, but tend to generate less power).
Then came Bolt, who towers over his opponents at six feet, five inches. Not only can he approximate the turnover rate of his shorter opponents (just under five steps per second), but his maximum stride length of nearly three metres dwarfs those of his rivals. As a result, he covered 100 m in Berlin in just 41 steps, or 3.5 fewer than second-place finisher Tyson Gay. “That’s not just impressive, it’s astounding,” concludes Mann. “I mean, every one of the men on that line is a freak. But every once in a while you’re going to get a genetic freak among freaks—a Tiger Woods or a Michael Jordan in his sport. And we’ve got one in Usain Bolt.”
Bolt has also benefited from advancements in strategy, which have been lowering times across the sport since the late 1990s. No longer do sprinters cycle their legs maniacally in the first 30 m of the race. Instead they conserve energy for a surge near the wire. “When I started doing that, my times dropped dramatically,” recalls Bruny Surin, the former Canadian track star who later went into coaching. “That’s how all these guys are running today, and when I hear people saying it’s not possible to run the times that Usain is running, I’m convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Whether this is sufficient to explain a man whose results belittle even those of known steroid users is yet to be seen. For some, it doesn’t matter. Darren Stefanyshyn, a kinesiology professor with the University of Calgary, believes Bolt has altered the sporting landscape regardless of whether he is ever implicated in doping. Coaches will be casting about for tall men, he predicts, while theorists revise ideas about how fast a human can possibly run. (One such theory, postulated just last month by Dutch researchers, pegged the “ultimate” world record in the 100 m at 9.51 seconds; no word on whether they plan to issue an update.)
Siegel, too, is content to marvel at Bolt’s exploits as seen through the prism of arithmetical projections. According to his calculations, the Jamaican’s performance should hold up for a generation—provided he doesn’t break it himself. But like many ardent fans, Siegel’s enthusiasm is tempered by realism. “I freely admit my projections are based on assumptions,” he says, “and one of them is: there is a hard limit to how fast a human being can run a hundred metres and still be considered a human being.” Near as Siegel can tell, Bolt still fits within those parameters—tall but not unnaturally tall, powerful but not impossibly powerful, fast but not inhumanly fast. Still, it’s early days. If Bolt bests his own times in the coming years, and if he manages to stay clean, people like Siegel will have a good time charting the extremes of human physical performance. If he proves to be juicing, the damage to his sport will be incalculable.