Usain Bolt, Lance Armstrong and the Duck Test

“When people ask me about Bolt, I say he could be the greatest athlete of all time. But for someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don’t question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you’re a fool. Period.” Carl Lewis

Usain bolt; the fastest person ever timed. 11 times world champion, 9 time gold medalist at the Olympics (the Treble Treble); the first ever man to hold both the 100m and 200m world records.

Oh and he also holds the world record for the 4x100 (thanks team).

So then, not just a champion, the greatest champion in the three events he competes in the world has ever seen. That last sentence bears dwelling on — Usain Bolt has not only beaten his fellow world class athletes, he has set seemingly game-changing records in the course of becoming the best.

And yet, despite the number of fellow competitors that have received various different bans for illegal doping, Usain Bolt has remained relatively immune to both criticism and also, importantly, scrutiny. In a sport marred, bruised and almost broken by scandal, Bolt has emerged in the eyes of fans and press alike as a shining beacon of achievement, but also charm, charisma and a laid back attitude that has turned the starting blocks from a place of intense and unwavering concentration into a pre-race competition of who can appear the most relaxed and joyous.

He’s transformed a sport almost single handedly. Surely with that should come a level of scepticism that accompanies all sportsmen that take part in sports that have a murky track record at best in terms of chemically driven unfair advantages. And yet, he doesn’t.

Okay first up I need to throw out a couple of disclaimers — I am not a journalist, and therefore have no first hand sources for any of the following information. It’s simply a collection of publicly available articles and information that I believe paint a picture that is, other than here, rarely, if ever arranged in a narrative that casts serious doubts or questions on the achievements of Usain Bolt as a completely clean athlete.

The aim of this isn’t to throw around accusations that by their nature are inflammatory or even proveable — it is instead to present some facts and arrange a parallel or two that at least bring about discussion and critical thinking.

The Duck Test

Broadly speaking, this is an exploration of a Duck Test of sorts when applied to Usain Bolt:

“if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”

The Duck in question is Lance Armstrong (or cheaters more broadly), a wonderful shining example of what it means to fall from grace purely for reasons of doping (and lying about said doping). Tiger Woods had a lot of sex, O J had a murder trial and Floyd had domestic abuse charges; Lance fell purely because of the heights that he previously rose to, only for those achievements to be wholly and catastrophically undermined by cheating (and only cheating. And being a dick. But mostly cheating).

For those unfamiliar, the TL:DR is this. Lance Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer to win 7 Tour De France’s between 1998 and 2005, founded a Charity that raised millions of dollars for those battling cancer and brought the sport of Cycling to millions of new fans, eager to share a part of a new American sporting hero’s journey from the edge of death to superstardom. He was the epitome of sporting courage and achievement. Oh, and he cheated. The whole time. All 7 of his Tour De France titles (and every other achievement) were stripped from him. A once-idolised athlete had nothing left of his career and sporting wins.

When comparing Lance Armstrong and Usain Bolt I’ve picked out some points that I think characterise why the proverbial ‘we’ should have known in advance that an athlete was a cheat and some reasons why it didn’t come to light sooner.

So using Lance Armstrong as a template, here are some attributes of his career that should have served as warning signs:

  • Huge early promise as an athlete (a precursor rather than an indicator)
  • Huge leap in ability over a short period of time
  • Astonishing athletic achievements (untouchable)
  • Dirty Sport (that suits doping — huge infrequent events, large off season, one primary physical attribute)
  • Dirty Team
  • Questionable coaching/medical staff

And here are some that may indicate why he wasn’t exposed earlier:

  • Huge sponsorship deals
  • Big personality
  • An inspiration to millions, raising awareness of a sport
  • Never tested positive in a test

I’ll explain all of those. Together I think they at the very least draw some interesting and troubling parallels between the two athletes.

Huge early promise

Doping doesn’t make average athletes the best. It can make excellent athletes world class. And when I say excellent, they can be really excellent. But many sports require more than excellent. Certain sports require that you be the best, or second or third best in the world, or be resigned to obscurity. Team sports don’t fall into this, by their very nature. Individual sports are different. You either win or you’re gone.

All world class athletes show early signs of genius. Clean or otherwise. Usain Bolt is no exception to this. He was spotted by his teachers to show great potential for athletics, and by 2002 he’d won a Junior Championship in the 200m with a time of 20.61 seconds (aged 15, he was already 6ft 5) and became the youngest ever winner of a gold medal at a world-junior competition. Before he turned professional in 2004, he had won numerous competitions and been hailed as “the most phenomenal sprinter ever produced by this island”.

The next couple of years, including the Athens Olympics, were upset by a string of injuries, though he still showed great signs of promise and became the youngest ever athlete to appear in a 200m world final at the age of 18. He continued to compete at senior level, winning his first major medal in 2006 (a bronze) at the IAAF World Athletics Finals for the 200m, and a gold in the 100m at 23rd Vardinoyiannia meeting in 2007, which was in July.

Prior to 2008, Usain Bolt’s best times in the 100m and 200m were 10.03 and 19.75 respectively.

Huge jump in ability in short period of time

By May of 2008, less than a year after his last worldwide competition, Usain Bolt has drastically improved his ability at the 100m. At a Jamaica Invitational in Kingston on the 3rd May he ran 9.76s, smashing his personal best. In attendance at that event was American Sprinting legend Michael Johnson was reportedly shocked, saying

“I never would have predicted he could run that fast over 100m”.

Less than a month later, Bolt broke the world record in New York City, running a 9.72s. It was only his fifth ever senior 100m.

Then came the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008. Bolt won every one of his qualifying races, with his fastest time in the semi finals of 9.85. Then in the final, this happened:

Bolt obliterated that rest of the field and ran a 9.69s. He did so in just 34 strides, with his shoelaces untied. He visibly slowed a good 15 meters before the finish line, slapping his chest.

Using stats about Usain’s season’s best time in the 100m, we can plot the following graph that shows his % improvement, year on year, over the course of his career:

Sprinters in their youth improve rapidly, but obviously these improvements cannot and do not continue throughout their career. Injuries, form, and peak ability all influences season best times. The graph does however show that in less that 12 months between 2007 and 2008, Usain Bolt moved from a promising sprinter, to the fastest man alive. It was the greatest period of improvement in his adult life, and one that he has never matched since.

Incredibly though, he got even faster the next year (just not by as much).

Astonishing athletic achievements

At the 2009 World Championships in August, Bolt eased through the 100 m heats, clocking the fastest ever pre-final performance of 9.89 seconds. In the final, Bolt improved his world record with a time of 9.58 s to win his first World Championship gold medal. Taking over a tenth of a second off the previous best mark, this was the largest ever margin of improvement in the 100 m world record since the beginning of electronic timing.

To see how exceptional that time is, look at the following plot of the world records for the 100m over the last 100 or so years.

See that blue dot way below the line on the right? That’s Bolt’s 2009 time.

And what’s the green one? Well, at the Beijing Olympics, remember that Bolt slowed massively towards the end of the race? Scientific analysis of Bolt’s run by the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, Hans Eriksen and his colleagues predicted a sub 9.60 s time had Bolt not slowed down. Considering factors such as Bolt’s position, acceleration and velocity in comparison with second-place-finisher Thompson, the team estimated that Bolt could have finished in 9.55 ± 0.04 s had he not slowed to celebrate before the finishing line. That’s potentially a 100m run in 9.51 seconds.

The trend line above shows just how almost laughably fast Bolt’s new World Record was (and how fast is could have been). Simply put, not only did Bolt break records, he broke them by unfathomable amounts when he did.

There have been scientific papers written on Bolt’s unique physique which examine how his height and stride length, combined with great technique, give him an advantage over his competitors. But remember, doping doesn’t make mere mortals into the best in the world, but it can make those with natural gifts and excellent coaching the best.

And what of the advancements in sport science over the last decade? Undoubtedly as a discipline this has improved, and the influence of sport psychology, physiotherapy, dieticians and understandings of biomechanics have led to a greater understanding of sports and therefore the ability to improve on them. However, the Jamaican team’s philosophy and coaching style doesn’t seem to be revolutionary (at least from the few articles I found here, here and a discussion here). Disciplined, well planned and well organised? Yes. That would guarantee an athlete like Bolt, with times like that? Well, less probable.

So far, so exceptional for Mr Bolt. But to only focus on the achievements is to ignore the long and troubled history that sprinting has had with doping, and the reason why great achievements in athletics require our skepticism. Even its modern history is murky.

A Dirty Sport

Prior to 2008, the previous six years had seen the BALCO scandal (where a co-op produced and supplied once-undetectable designer steroids to many top sports stars), Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin stripped of their 100 m world records, and Marion Jones returning three Olympic gold medals. All three sprinters were disqualified from athletics after drugs tests detected banned substances in their systems.

Here’s a list of the fastest men ever recorded. An orange highlight indicates if they have even been banned from sprinting because of illegal doping:

In other words, of the 5 fastest men ever recorded, Bolt is the only one never to have been caught doping. Nesta Carter, number 6 on that list, is currently accused of doping in 2008. If confirmed, Bolt will be the only one of the top 6 never to have been found doping.

This becomes even more remarkable when you look at the 20 or so fastest individual times ever run (by any sprinter):

The only name in that list never caught for doping is, you guessed it, Usain Bolt.

A Dirty Team

Here’s a list of every doping ban for Jamaican Olympians during Usain Bolt’s professional career, and the sport they were in:

That’s 19 bans, 16 of which were in Sprinting. Ray Stewart number, 17 is a sports coach- he coaches sprinting. 90% of all Jamaican athletes banned have been in sprinting, including Bolts’ former training partner Yohan Blake.

If we look at all the countries that have had bans in sprinting over this timeframe, only the US has had more (26). Nigeria have had 12, Russia 8, Canada 7, the Ukraine 6. Great Britain has had 3. If you compare the number of bans to the populations of some of these countries, Jamaica comes out way on top:

Former doping guru Victor Conte has also claimed that

“At the 2001 world championships athletes from a Caribbean country, not Jamaica, told me how a doctor from their team supplied them with testosterone, EPO (erythropoietin) and other kinds of steroids.
“I know, because I went to him and he gave me EPO.
“The same informer tells me now that before Beijing (Olympic Games in 2008) that the Jamaicans were applying the same protocol that I created at BALCO.
“I don’t have proof, but all you need to do is look at the results: I strongly suspect (Usain) Bolt, and the others (Jamaicans).”

Questionable staff

In June 2009, 5 Jamaican athletes were found positive for banned substances.

At least 2 of the athletes belonged to the Racers Track Club and were coached by Glen Mills. The athletes were later revealed to be Yohan Blake, Marvin Anderson, Allodin Fothergill, Lansford Spence and Sheri-Ann Brooks, who all tested positive for banned performance enhancing drugs, and were subsequently banned for a paltry 3 months by the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission.

Glen Mills, the man who coached the Club where athletes were found to be doping, also coached Usain bolt from 2004 until 2009. Incidentally, he’s also worked with Dwain Chambers, also banned for doping (though prior to working with Mills).

Herb Elliott served as one of Jamaica’s team doctors at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was a medical official with the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association ahead of the London Games. This was a man when asked why Jamaica had risen to such heights in sprinting, attributed their history of slavery to their success:

“They say that our aggression, our toughness, came out of our slave situation, considering that Jamaica had more slavery rebellion than any country in the world. It’s not a question of genetic pool, but we have that.”

Let’s look at the medals won by Jamaica in Olympic games:

Quite why it took until 2008 for this toughness and determination to emerge in the athletics (and only athletics) team is a mystery. The only medal above that is not in athletics was a single bronze in cycling, in 1980. For an experienced team doctor, that seems at best a overly simplistic explanation.

He said that in 2008. In 2013, The Wall Street Journal published an article that cast doubt on Dr Herb Elliot’s qualifications, and

‘could not verify that Herbert George Elliott, the commission’s chairman, earned a master’s in chemistry from Columbia University and a medical degree and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Université Libre de Bruxelles.’

Hmm. These claims have been disputed, but the rebuttal quoted in the article is laughable.

“Why do I need to prove this? I went to these places.” …
…Elliott said he got his medical degree from Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1975, but couldn’t recall when he obtained his Ph.D., or his master’s at Columbia…
…IOC spokesman Mark Adams said team doctors must provide certification but couldn’t confirm that a certification of Elliott took place…
…Elliott said he didn’t know where his diplomas and other verifying documents were located. He said his late wife had been in charge of all of his papers…

Whilst straying into conjecture, it doesn’t paint the best picture (at least of the organisational skills) of the team doctor of the Jamaican athletics team. And there’s more to come with Dr Herb Elliot.

A weak system of testing

According the the Jamaican Anti-Doping Comission (JADCO) website, The Government of Jamaica adopted the World Anti-Doping Programme and the World Anti-Doping Code on November 17, 2003. For the next five years,

‘an interim committee was created and the work of the anti-doping programme operated as a project under the Ministry of Sports. The primary responsibilities of the committee were to develop the anti-doping in sport policy framework and to ensure the finalisation of the drafting of the Anti-Doping in Sport Act’.

It wasn’t until after the Beijing Olympics (and Bolts record breaking run) in July 2008 that the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission was formed. It was the first body to be charged with actually executing the national anti-doping programme, in accordance with the standards stipulated by the international governing body, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Remember the Jamaican team doctor Herb Elliot? He was chairman of JADCO. The former team doctor for the sprinters of Jamaica became the chairman of the organisation charged with finding cheats and handing them bans.

JADCO repeatedly came under fire for its seemingly poor practices and lax attitude towards testing its athletes. For example, in 2012, JADCO conducted 106 tests. That same year, Iceland conducted 113, Iran 181, the US 4,051, the UK 5,971, and China 10,066. 68 of these tests were performed out of competition, with the remaining 28 occurring during competition, meaning athletes know months in advance of roughly when they will take place.

In 2013, a few weeks after his comments on the Jamaican athletes’ abilities, this happened:

Less than a month after World Anti-Doping Agency officials visited Jamaica to conduct what the nation’s minister for sport called an “extraordinary audit,” the entire board of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission and its chairman, Dr. Herb Elliot, have resigned.

The article goes on to say that

As Simon Hart of the Telegraph in the UK reports, JADCO’s former executive director, Renee Anne Shirley, revealed in a Sports Illustrated article that the organization conducted only one out-of-competition drug test in the five months leading up to the 2012 Olympics, that it had never conducted a blood test on an athlete, and that it was perpetually understaffed.

Dr Paul Wright, the doping control officer whose allegations helped cast doubt over whether Jamaica’s top sprinters were adequately drugs tested before London 2012, was fired in November 2013. He was quoted as saying that Jamaica’s recent rash of failed drug tests might be the “tip of the iceberg”.

So in the run up to Beijing 2008, Jamaica had no official, internationally recognised Anti-Doping Organisation, and after the 2012 Olympics the organisation came under heavy criticism, leading to the entire board resigning after WADA inspections.

In short, the body targeted with finding and routing out cheaters has been shown to be failing to live up to international standards, so it is at the very least possible that dopers have not been caught.

Since then under intense international scrutiny, the number of medals won in athletic events has dropped across the Jamaican team.

To summarise

  • Usain Bolt was a gifted sprinter at junior level.
  • Between 2007 and 2008, his sprinting ability improved drastically, to the consternation of pundits and experts.
  • At the same time, the competitiveness of the entire Jamaican team improved, indicated by their increase in medals at major events.
  • Bolt smashed world records and his fellow competitors by a huge margin in 2008 and 2009.
  • Of the 5 fastest men ever recorded, he is the only one never to have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Of the 20 top times ever recorded at the 100 metres, he’s the only athlete not to have been caught doping.
  • Sprinting has been mired in controversy and doping scandals throughout its history and into the present day.
  • Large numbers of Jamaican sprinters have been caught doping, including his training partner.
  • The coach of a number of these sprinters was the same as Bolt’s, Glen Mills.
  • Jamaican athletics has a poor history of rigorous drug testing, so its possible that more athletes may have been cheating, but have slipped through the net.

The Duck Test returns. Of the traits I identified as characteristics of Lance Armstrong’s now shattered career achievements are present in Bolts.

Simply put, during a period where the Jamaican team had no rigorous drugs testing in place, the sprinters won more medals at international level than ever before in a sport where doping is historically rife. Of those athletes the greatest was Usain Bolt, a man who improved drastically over the course of twelve months, smashing world records in the process. He has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, despite many of his fellow team members being caught, some of whom also had the same coaching and medical staff as him.

Extraordinary achievements in sports mired by drugs have to be treated with scepticism, extreme skepticism, especially when it appears the team and coaching staff can be linked to athletes that have doped.

Given this, it’s remarkable that Bolt himself has not come under more scrutiny than he has. By the time Armstrong retired, it was almost an open secret within the cycling press. But there appears not to be the same level of accusatory remarks levelled at Bolt, at least not with the same level of frustration and anger.

Why is this? Well again we can look to Lance Armstrong for parallels.

Why he hasn’t been caught (if he is dirty)

If Lance Armstrong propelled cycling into the national and international psyche, raising its popularity and seemingly saving its ruined image, then much has been said of Bolt.

Take this fawning article in Reuters:

Athletics got the hero it has been craving for years when Usain Bolt lit up the Bird’s Nest with his brilliance, his 100 meters victory ensconced as one of the images of the 2008 Olympic Games.
After years of one depressing doping scandal after another, the Games began with many leading figures warning that athletics was in real danger of alienating its fans forever and with it, losing its place as the heart and soul of the Olympics.
Bolt’s stunning performances, and the excitement of the build-up to his races, ensured that, for sprinting at least, things are looking good.

And this from the BBC:

It’s not too much of a stretch to describe Bolt as his sport’s saviour. His remarkable feats can, briefly, bring the world to a halt, while he possesses a magnetic appeal that transcends track and field and crosses generations.

Quite simply Usain Bolt has transformed how athletics and sprinting is viewed. He repaired its reputation and brought it to a new generation of adoring fans. He’s also the fastest man ever, and beyond his achievements, there’s the way he does it. His big personality, with charisma to burn. Armstrong was similar in the size of his personality, but was less laid back, less likeable. Bolt seems like he’s just along the ride and enjoying every minute of it.

Again from the BBC:

Unaffected, laid-back but always the showman, Bolt makes the superhuman seem routine and his easy charm is hugely endearing.
Not for him the muscular machismo of many sprinters. Swaying, dancing and posing before and after races, he looks like he’s having a great time and the sense of fun is infectious.
While the time we see him in action is oh so brief, he appears to have all the time in the world for fans and journalists once his business is complete.

It’s this killer combination of physical achievement and wonderful endearing character traits that make him so transcendent, and, importantly, so marketable.

SportsMedia named Usain Bolt as the 31st most marketable athlete in the world (prior to Rio 2016); in 2011 he was named the most marketable, above all other sportspeople. Not a Ballon D´or winner in Football, Superbowl winning Quarterback or NBA MVP, a sprinter.

In 2012, he reportedly earned over $20 million a year, placing him 63 in the list of highest paid athletes, earning 20 times what other elite sprinters do, and more than any other athlete in track and field in history.

He has had endorsement deals with Gatorade, Hublot, Virgin Media, Visa, Soul Electronics, Missan Motors and Puma. His endorsements and sponsorship deals dwarf any prize money he could hope of earning from international events.

He is the face of athletics, literally; his face was everywhere as the figurehead and face of international brands. Combined with his laid-back and fun-loving attitude, it’s easy to see why we want Usain Bolt to be the greatest sprinter of all time.

Can you imagine the almost irreparable damage that it would do to athletics if he were ever found to have cheated? Is it possible that the damage to the sport and to the brands associated with Bolt would be so big, that they would not want him to be caught? Into conjecture we slide…

Remember Lance Armstrong’s repeated assertion that ‘he ha[d] never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs’? Same applies here. Perhaps Bolt is clean. Perhaps his unique physicality and raw talent has enabled him to work hard and become the most untouchably brilliant sprinter ever to grace the sport. But we are not doing our jobs as fans, pundits, experts and lovers of sport if we are not skeptical about our greatest athletes.

With professional sports, we, the fans, want heroes. We want to see records broken, underdog stories come true, professional excellence on display. But we also deserve clean heroes; ones that don’t deceive us, the viewers, into believing only hard work and raw talent got them there. Just how many duck tests can a single athlete shake off without the truth finally emerging?

Maybe, like Lance Armstrong, time will tell.

p.s. Since I started writing this article, the WADA hacking scandal has hit the headlines, casting many more sports into self-reflection and doubts about what does exactly count as cheating. Maybe all of athletics is not as black and white as we’d like, but the leaks show the the shades of grey are much darker than we thought, or wanted.