Is Usain Bolt clean?

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Is Usain Bolt clean?

Following up my Lance Armstrong post, I’ve had a few questions regarding my opinion of Usain Bolt.

Let’s be clear: Bolt has never officially failed any drugs test, he has an absolutely clean slate right now with regards to any evidence of taking performance enhancing substances that are banned by the International Olympic Committee, or any other sporting federation for that matter.

Officially, the only rule he has broken in athletics so far is when he false-started one 100m final a couple of years ago, and he was duly disqualified.

So how on earth could there be a question mark over his drug-free status?

Let’s start with answering some of the common arguments of the majority opinion that he is clean.

1. He doesn’t look like he takes steroids! He’s not that big!

‘Steroids’ is an umbrella term that groups together a whole range of different drugs, all of which are designed to achieve different things and work different ways.

There are steroids which can make you rapidly increase your muscle mass (the ones everyone thinks of); ones that can increase your strength hugely without building too much muscle (useful for those in weight class sports),; drugs that can get you extremely lean very quickly while preserving muscle; and ones that can greatly increase your endurance.

The way someone looks is not an accurate way to tell if someone is using PEDs or not.  For a sprinter like Bolt it is obviously advantageous to be strong but not too heavy and muscular.

2. Look how tall he is, he is a real genetic freak!

Granted Bolt does seem to have certain natural advantages over his rivals that help him run so fast- not least his height (6’5″) which is an anomaly in a race distance usually dominated by shorter, stockier physiques.

He is certainly a genetic freak in that he has been blessed with a body type designed for sprinting, plenty of fast-twitch muscle fibres in his legs (for explosive power) and a talent for running.

The thing is at that level they are all genetically gifted.

To be even a good national level athlete you need a lot of natural talent.  To be an international athlete you need to be even more special.  To be in the Olympic 100m final?  There is no doubt that you are among the top 0.1 % of people when it comes to just being born to be a sprinter.

So what makes the difference between winners and losers at that level?  There have been whole theses written by people a lot cleverer and more knowledgable than me on that subject, but everyone knows about ‘the winners mentality’ and the importance of the psychological aspect of winning.

The point is that yes Bolt is a freak, but at that level not a whole lot is going to seperate the competitors genetically.

So bear that in mind when we look at an interesting table of the top fastest 100m times in history to date:

The crossed out names have all tested positive for PEDs. Credit

Since this list was made Yohan Blake has also served a 3 month ban, which means his name should be crossed out as well.

So out of the top ten times (Bolt to Steve Mullings) 9 have tested positive for PEDs!

Remember these guys are all Olympic athletes.  They are the best of the best.  They are without exception supremely gifted, have worked extremely hard and spent their whole lives training in the pursuit of being as fast as they could possibly be. 

Out of the ten, Bolt is not only the only one who has not tested positive for drugs but sits at the top; even more amazingly his time is 0.11 seconds faster than the second best; Tyson Gay’s confirmed drug assisted performance of 9.69.

Which is the same gap as between Gay and Mullings (10th, 9.80)!

It is irrefutable that steroids work.  They will make you faster and perform better than your natural self no matter what.

If you don’t believe me, look at what HRT or TRT (Hormone or Testosterone Replacement Therapy) does for older people whose hormone levels have naturally declined.

If Bolt truly is natural, then he is a genetic outlier to the point of practically being a different species; he is beating the best of the best by a country mile, even when they are all using drugs!

Imagine how fast he would go if he did start taking PEDs!

3. But he was winning Jamaican schoolboy championships when he was 15, it’s not like he came out of nowhere!

People like Lance Armstrong were also winning adult level triathlons when they were 16.

No-one is denying that you have to be extremely gifted to even have a chance at being at the very top of your sport, the fact that Bolt has always been a winner and hugely impressive since a young age doesn’t really tell us anything.

This doesn’t preclude the fact that we don’t know whether he was completely natural when he was in his late teens.

Steroids and drugs aren’t like some sort of gold dust; go to any gym in the world and I guarantee there will be a few people in there who use or have used steroids.  They are not just the preserve of elite level athletes.  They are not that hard to get.

4.  He has never failed a test

If you want a really good perspective on how effective drug testing is, I refer you to an outstanding documentary by Christopher Bell, Bigger, Stronger, FasterIf you take nothing else from this post, just watch it, it is revelatory. 

As I said in my Armstrong post, Lance Armstrong showed how it was possible to beat the testers over and over.

When you watch Bigger, Stronger, Faster pay attention to the interviews with prominent Olympic coaches and trainers who say that essentially getting caught is a question of being ‘stupid’ (i.e. not scheduling your drug cycles correctly, not ensuring drugs are masked or out of your system before testing etc.)

Marion Jones is another prime example, also referenced in the film.

Let’s not even get into the fact that the Jamaican Athletics governing body has been under a lot of scrutiny and criticism for the weakness of their testing proceedures.

Other points to note

I’m sorry if I’m bursting your bubble and your beliefs in the supposed purity of competition.  But once you understand that is is all part of the game it needn’t spoil the enjoyment of watching the athletes.

Your favourite athlete is not letting you down if they test positive; they are only ‘cheating’ if you innocently and incorrectly believe that everyone else is clean.

Once you realise that it is not ‘cheating’ but just an essential element to be the best at that level it doesn’t take anything away from the athletes; they have still sacrificed a huge amount and worked extremely hard to get there.

As I have said before, if the drugs were all taken away the champions would probably still be the same, it is just the records would be lower.

What about health and side-effects?  Athletes shouldn’t have to take drugs to compete!

It is true that it kind of sucks that in order to compete nowadays drugs have to be part of the equation.  What about the health risks?

For one, there are to date no conclusive studies that link steroid use to causes of death.  A lot of the horror stories you hear about steroids come from their abuse: abuse anything (even drinking water) and you are going to pay for it.  It is possible to take steroids under medical supervision (such as Hormone Replacement Therapy) where they can be applied safely.

Secondly, taking drugs to make it to the top is to me, a professional and personal decision.  If your dream is to be a professional rugby player you are signing up to get your ligaments torn, concussion and a whole host of potential long term injuries but you do it because you accept the risk.

If you can’t take it, you don’t sign, you do something else.

Aren’t we being paternalistic if we try to tell people how to use their bodies?  If their choice doesn’t hurt anyone else who are we to tell them what they can and can’t do?

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Above all, the bottom line is king

Spectacles like the Olympics are, above all else, a business.  It is meant to inspire us with a showcase of how mankind can reach towards its physical potential and get better and better each time.

The organisers know that people tune in to see extraordinary feats.  The records need to keep tumbling.

Like it or not money really is the driving force behind everything.  People don’t do things without a reward.

Think of the millions and millions that top athletes like Bolt get paid through sponsorship from companies.  It might seem a lot to pay to someone just to wear your shoes but the payoff the companies get as a result of increased sales is ten times bigger.

Even that ridiculous throwaway remark from Bolt on how he ate a few chicken nuggets before the race; it went down well with the public but is it a coincidence that Mcdonalds is a major Olympic sponsor? 

Is it that hard to believe this is just another piece of advertising and marketing?

Call me a massive cynic, but the likelihood of Bolt actually eating just chicken nuggets before the 100m Olympic final is as about as likely as cock-fighting being introduced as the next Olympic sport.

There is too much as stake, financially, for him to get caught

After all the recent drugs busts and scandals of Olympic champions being caught with drugs Bolt has an even higher status than a normal 100m Olympic champion in that his amazing performances have revitalised global interest in the ‘wholesomeness’ of the Olympic brand.

Parents can be happy for their children to cheer on Bolt, with his laidback and happy attitude unsullied by any awkward links to drugs.

They can point to him and the other ‘clean’ athletes and say, “look what you can achieve with hard work and talent!” and really mean it.

They will happily go out and buy the products he advertises, buy the Jamaican shirts for their kids, buy the trainers he endorses.  If he shows up at a meet or an event thousands more tickets will sell.

If he ever tested positive, or even came under serious suspicion, that money circus will stop turning, as well as the image of the Olympics taking a hit from which it would struggle to recover. 

So is Usain Bolt clean?  I’ll let you decide for yourself.  But as you consider, ask another question:

Is anyone even looking?

photo credit: mathowie via photopin cc

photo credit: mathowie via photopin cc

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