There are no indications that both the speed of Usain Bolt as well as his iconic performances are enhanced by anything but his greatness. The meteoric rise of the country’s sprinting contingent has, however, given rise to questions as to whether it would have been possible without artificial performance enhancement.
Bolt, as an individual, is not the most remarkable phenomenon to emerge from Jamaica. The real marvel is the sheer number of world-class sprinters the island has produced over the past decade. Bolt may be top of the pile but he is a well-supported leading actor.
At the 2008 Olympic Games, Jamaica won gold in five of the six sprinting events. At London 2012, they won four of the six golds, but also claimed 10 of the 18 medals. How is it possible for a country with a population of less than three million? This is the question Richard Moore has sought to answer in his new book, The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory.
Moore is a former Scottish international cyclist who has covered the Tour de France countless times. He is well-versed in reporting on doping scandals and dirty sports. He has seen numerous riders branded dopers solely by virtue of winning bike races and finding themselves surrounded by unsubstantiated rumours.
Moore admitted to being conflicted
over whether he believes the doping rumours about the Jamaicans, conceding his distance, in a physical and an emotional sense, made it easier to be cynical. So he decided to get closer. He visited Jamaica several times to try to find out just what makes this group of sprinters so great because irrespective of the answer to the doping question, there must be a number of reasons for this concentration of talent.
Moore found many reasons, and the first is Champs, the annual Jamaican multi-sport high school athletics meet. Think of a school sports day, times it by a trillion, throw in dozens of world-class kids and you will have a flavour of what the event is about. Every senior international Jamaican sprinter attributes at least some of his or her success to having taken in part in the most competitive school athletics meet in the world. It allows them to experience having to perform under pressure and in front of huge crowds, meaning a World or Olympic final is infinitely less intimidating.
There are also the coaches, Glen Mills and Stephen Francis. These two men have almost all of Jamaica’s top sprinters in their training groups and although they have very different training methods, their results are equally impressive. There is also the fact most sprinters are from incredibly poor areas. Athletics is their way to a better life. It gives them an innate drive to succeed that cannot be manufactured.
Despite the cynicism, when Moore started researching his book there was no evidence of doping by the Jamaican sprinters, only the unsubstantiated rumours. But then, like a wrecking ball, the evidence arrived.
In 2013, six Jamaican athletes tested positive – including the former world record-holder Asafa Powell, the double Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown and the Olympic silver medallist Sherone Simpson – albeit their positive samples involved fairly low-level drugs such as diuretics and stimulants. But surely, some thought, this confirmed the suspicion doping was rife in Jamaica?
There are some who are convinced that systematic doping does happen. Victor Conte, who turned to researching and developing legal-to-use sports supplements after his release from jail for offences linked to the BALCO scandal, seems sure. So does the former Olympic champion Carl Lewis.
The drug-testing regime within Jamaica does little to quell the suspicions. The island’s anti-doping authority, JADCO, has been much derided in recent years over the paltry number of dope tests it conducted.
Indeed, the organisation’s former executive director, Renee Anne Shirley, particularly scathing in her criticism. She has been called a traitor for supposedly tainting the country’s reputation. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has investigated JADCO and while things are improving, few are convinced that their procedures are watertight.
Moore has conducted a fascinating investigation into the Jamaican sprinting factory that provides no definitive answers. He has not identified any single factor that has turned Jamaica into a sprinting powerhouse. As for the doping question? Sport has entered an era where every great performance is treated with suspicion. But if Moore’s goal was to provide a fuller picture from which we feel qualified to reach our own verdict, he has succeeded.