THE genesis of my new book about Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprinting phenomenon was, strange as it might seem, the 2012 Tour de France. Bradley Wiggins was winning but many suspected him of doping.
Trust in the Tour was legitimately low; questions were entirely valid; scepticism was natural. That was fair enough. But I became exasperated by those, especially journalists, who peddled rumours as evidence and asserted that there could be no smoke without fire.
I am now a legend. I am the greatest athlete to liveUsain Bolt
People are entitled to their opinions, but the stock-in-trade of journalists should be facts, not innuendo. The explanation, I think, was that many were scarred by the experience of reporting on Lance Armstrong while others were keen to emulate the journalist who helped expose Armstrong, David Walsh, or simply to be able to say “I told you so” when/if Wiggins was busted. It began to seem more courageous to say that Wiggins might be clean than to hint that he was dirty.
The same is now happening with Chris Froome. There is no evidence that he is doping but many assume, based on his performances, that he is. It’s far safer that way. You won’t end up looking like a fool.
This brings me to Usain Bolt. I went from the 2012 Tour to the London Olympics and was struck by the contrast. Whereas the Tour was dominated by questions about doping – to the point where Wiggins snapped, delivering a tirade against the “f***ing wankers” on Twitter who couldn’t “get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something” – such questions were largely absent from London 2012. The atmosphere was different. It was more enjoyable, but also disconcerting. If Bolt wasn’t subject to any scrutiny during the Olympics, then when?
I saw him win the 100 metres, the 200 metres and the 4 x 100m relay: completing the same treble as in Beijing four years earlier. Watching the 100 metres from a position level with the finish line, about 20 rows up, I saw the line of sprinters unfurl, extend to full height, one so much taller than the others, and so much quicker. Bolt devoured the track with his long legs. It didn’t seem a fair contest. It was breath-taking, exhilarating.
Then came the 200 metres, after which he appeared for his press conference and requested a drum roll. “I’m now a legend,” said Bolt, a glint in his eye. “I am the greatest athlete to live. To all the people who doubted me, who thought I would lose here, you can stop talking now.”
At the end, he added: “I have one more thing to say. I am now a living legend. Bask in my glory. If I don’t see that in the paper and on TV in all your countries I will never give an interview again. Tell everyone to follow me on Twitter.” Quite a contrast to Wiggins’ tirade against his critics on Twitter.
As far as I could tell, Bolt wasn’t asked a single question about doping, yet he was the greatest of all time in an event with a very dubious history. It seemed to me that if we assumed he was clean then we had learned little from Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin, nor from the asterisks, denoting drugs cheats, that rain down like confetti on the all-time fastest list.
During the Olympics I read a blog by Dan Bernstein, a ‘senior columnist’ with CBS Chicago, beneath the headline: “Usain Bolt Is Probably Doping (And You Know It).” After going through the reasons why – the history of his event, the ineffectiveness of Jamaican anti-doping, that the island was so small, that Bolt had allegedly worked with a notorious chemist (an allegation denied by the Bolt camp) – Bernstein concluded: “Anyone wasting words extolling the greatness of Usain Bolt should know better.”
Well, it was one thing to be sceptical, another to state as fact something that you couldn’t possibly know to be true. I was sceptical, but I couldn’t share Bernstein’s confidence in his verdict, because I knew so little about Bolt: only that he was very good. But so were so many of his countrymen and women. After the Olympics I decided to try and find out why.
I went to Jamaica and to Champs, their secondary schools’ championship, which started in 1911. It was hard to believe, as I negotiated the throngs of people, that it was a schools’ championship. But it was the only show in town. The newspapers were full of it: front, back and letters pages. The radio stations were dominated by discussion of the young athletes – some already household names – who would star over the five days. There was live TV coverage. And on the final day there was a crowd of 30,000 people.
Picking up a programme, I read the mind-blowing statistic that at that moment every global male 100 metres champion, in every age group, was Jamaican: Olympic, world, Commonwealth, Youth Olympic, world junior and world youth. On the next page it said that drug-testing would be introduced at Champs the following year. “It is such a pity that the hard work and natural talent of our young athletes are now being scrutinised with suspicion,” read the article, before going on to question whether drug-testing children is to ensure fairness, protect ‘Brand Jamaica’, or to “appease international critics”.
It was at Champs in 2002 that Bolt announced his talent. He was 15. He was denied a Champs record in the 400m when a power cut stopped the electronic timing but he was hand-timed at 47.4 seconds – the record was 47.49. In the 200m he equalled the record, winning in 21.61. Interviewed afterwards, he said: “I train hard but not as hard as you would expect from one doing such fast times at my age.”
A few months later the world junior championships were held in Jamaica, in Kingston’s National Stadium. As at Champs when I was there, it was full, which was unusual for a world junior championships. The bleachers bounced with people and resounded with noise as Bolt lined up in lane three for the final of the 200m. He looked a foot taller than the other finalists but he had the build of a beansprout. He was just a frame, with no muscle.
When he was introduced to the crowd there was no showboating. He cracked his knuckles. He looked serious and nervous, even a little afraid, rocking from side to side, fidgeting, unable to keep his hands still. But when the race started he was quickly up, stretching to full height, accentuating his height advantage – but it seemed like a disadvantage on the bend as he drifted to the outside of his lane, as though his head, which was cocked to the right, was pulling him. Entering the straight he was alongside the runner on his inside. He was ungainly, ragged, head tilted back as the runner in lane five began to challenge. But Bolt held on, winning in 20.51. At 15, against rivals up to three years older, he was the junior world champion – the youngest in history.
From one of the boxes at the back of the stand he was watched by the country’s prime minister, PJ Patterson, a keen athletics fan, as most people in Jamaica seem to be. Patterson sat with Donald Quarrie, the 1976 Olympic 200m champion. “I said to Quarrie, ‘You’ve got to take this fella under your wing. Because if he can run a curve like that he’ll be a world beater,’” Patterson told me.
Also in the stand was Pascal Rolling, a French marketing executive from Puma. The German brand was arranging sponsorship deals with the Jamaican athletics and Olympic associations. It was more than just a kit sponsorship; they wanted to align themselves with the Jamaican culture and lifestyle. With ‘Brand Jamaica’. “At the same time,” Rolling told me, “we were looking for an athlete we could use in our communications.”
And there, before him, was a 15-year-old world junior champion who, after winning, seemed to forge a bond with the crowd. There was a connection there, thought Rollings. “I had seen Usain before but at the world championships he not only made the show on the track but also off the track, after the race. I thought, this is the perfect ambassador to represent our new relationship with Jamaica.”
Puma helped mould Bolt. They gave him media training and encouraged him to speak English rather than patois. When it seemed that his potential might not be realised, when he broke down with a hamstring injury in 2004, they arranged for him to see the world’s most revered sports doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, a relationship that continues to this day.
But Bolt is mainly a product of Jamaica. He was one of the first top sprinters to resist the lure of an American college and remain on the island, to be coached by Glen Mills at Racers Track Club, along with Yohan Blake and Warren Weir, who finished second and third behind him in the 200m at London 2012. A mile away, at the other university in Kingston, another group of world class sprinters – once including Asafa Powell, now with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Nesta Carter – trains under Stephen Francis at his club, MVP. The two clubs’ rivalry has the intensity – and venom – of the Old Firm.
I travelled throughout Jamaica and spoke to as many people as I could: athletes, coaches, agents, drug-testers and scientists, as well as Bolt’s father and his former teachers. I heard stories that reassured me and stories that concerned me. The picture is complicated. The question isn’t binary. It never is. I don’t know the answer. But I do think that suspicion based purely on performance could be unfair. With Bolt, one statistic jumped out.
In 2008 Athletics Weekly charted his progression over 200m, from when he was a skinny 15-year-old to the Beijing Olympics, when he broke Michael Johnson’s world record at the age of 21. They compared him with six of his peers. In percentage terms, Bolt ranked sixth.
He improved far less than the British sprinter Christian Malcolm. But Bolt was already – at 15 – a phenomenon: one who emerged from the rural backwater of Trelawny and became, as his mentor put it, “the golden treasure of Jamaica.”
n The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory, by Richard Moore, is published by Yellow Jersey on 23 July. £18.99.