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22 August 2008

Discovering Bolt: who is Usain, and should we be surprised?

Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, takes a look at the man behind the medals and tackles the tricky question on everyone's mind: did he dope?

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The name on everyone's lips is Usain Bolt. The man with the most appropriate name in track and field - followed closely by Philip Spies, the South African javelin thrower of earlier Olympics - has electrified the Beijing Olympic stadium, setting two world records to claim the 100m - 200m sprint double. Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, takes a look at the man behind the medals and tackles some difficult questions.

More than this, it's the manner of his victories that has wowed the world: he won the 100m race celebrating over the line, pumping his chest and playing to the crowd, and the 200m race was won by 0.5 seconds. Both truly incredible performances.

This has led many to suggest that Bolt is the "greatest ever". He may well become that. So while we watch to see whether he can add longevity to his achievements in 2008, who is this guy? And should we be surprised that he's taken the world of sprinting and turned it upside down, breaking records while celebrating, beating times that were thought to be "unbeatable"?

There are some tricky issues that need discussion, with doping, rearing its ugly head once again, though we don't have the answer to that one.

Bolt's history: Not entirely "from the blue"
Bolt has had world class stamped all over him from a very young age. He was born in 1986, and actually turned 22 the day after his 200m victory with the crowd singing "happy birthday" to him.

According to the IAAF biography, the following table shows his progression in performances from the age of 15 (these times seem to vary from one source to another, so I'm not 100% confident in them, but I've tried to triple-check for accuracy):

Year
100m
200m
400m
Comments
2001
21.81
48.28
Silver medal in both events at Carifta Games at age 15 (competing in Under 17 category)
21.73
Failed to qualify for 200m final at World Youth Champs (only 16 years old though)
2002
21.12
47.33
Won Carifta Games 200m and 400m titles
20.61
47.12
Becomes 200m world junior champion. Youngest world-junior medallist in history
2003
20.40
World Youth Champion at 200m
20.13
46.35
Equals world junior 200m record
2004
19.93
Breaks world junior record. Fails to progress beyond heats in Athens 200m
2005
19.99
8th in World Champs 200m final, after suffering injury during race (26.27 secs)
2006
19.88
 
2007
10.03
19.75
45.28
Silver medallist World Championships over 200m
2008
9.69 (WR)
19.30 (WR)
Double Olympic Gold and WR

The times Bolt produced as a teenager are extraordinary - a sub-21-second at the age of 16, and the youngest person ever to claim a medal at the World Junior Championships speaks of some enormous natural talent.

Time progressions
What is interesting is the progression in times over the years. This has relevance for the doping debate, because Bolt has, by virtue of his dominance, now been placed directly in a spotlight of suspicion. We know that sudden "unexplained" performances are an indication of doping, though finding proof is another story.

Looking at Bolt's progressions, I think it is interesting to see how rapidly his times were falling during his teenage years – a 21.81 at age 15 became a 19.93 at the age of 18.

That certainly does predict some impressive times later in his career. An 18-year old who runs 19.90 is quite conceivably a 22 year old running sub-19.5 seconds... could he have been on drugs at that age already? Even the hardest skeptic would not think it likely.

But then Bolt hit a few injury problems between 2005 and 2007, and he had a string of disappointing results at major championships. He failed to advance beyond the heats in Athens, and he came 8th in the Helsinki final with an injury. It seemed that Bolt had reached something of a plateau: the three years between 2004 and 2007 had produced an improvement of 0.18 seconds, whereas the three before had given him 0.88 seconds.

But then in 2007, he had something of a breakthrough year, winning silver behind Tyson Gay at the Osaka World Champs, and he was really the clear second best in the world over 200m last year.

Bolt's explosion – 2008
This year brought with it a quantum leap, in sprinting terms, anyway, as he suddenly jumped to the next level with his world record of 9.72 seconds over 100m in New York. And then there was Beijing.

So can we tell anything from this progression?

Well, he's clearly incredibly talented, a junior with a remarkable record, which suggested he'd be a star on the track one day. It's difficult to use this for anything more than suggestive purposes, because you never know what the ceiling is.

Bolt's incredible junior performances, and his rapid improvement from 15 to 18, might be nothing more than a symptom of early physical development. Then again, they do suggest that Bolt is naturally an exceptional runner and that the times he's produced in Beijing come out of the journey he began as a 15-year old.

But the big jump forward in 2008 is, for many, a flag that initiates a rather cynical debate. It is possible, given his early progression, that he was always going to run this fast. The "blip" in the middle might be solely due to injuries and perhaps a lack of focus in those years. Who knows?

Doping: The difficult question
As mentioned, though, the cynics point to his spectacular performances as "proof" of doping. One of our commenter's said "This guy is juiced to the gills. You've got to be a complete idiot to not realise it."

First things first, save your bullets for Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers, and the countless other cheats who have defrauded you (and Bolt, by association) in the past. The sport is tainted – there are no major sprint champions in the last 30 years who have escaped suspicion, and many have been caught or confessed.

So Bolt is guilty by association, which is not fair. However, because it's become impossible to prove innocence, we rather default into a position of "implied guilt", and we doubt spectacular performances.

Marion Jones proved that negative test results are meaningless by passing more than 100 tests in her career, and so the fact that Bolt has passed 11 doping controls this year is almost irrelevant to the debate.

Similarly, Bolt, or any other athlete, can appeal to our consciences and human trust all they wish, but Jones, Montgomery, and the many other drug users who have been caught after forcefully denying that they ever used drugs have shown that athletes can be world-class actors too.

So while Bolt may deny doping, and do so sincerely, the athletics-loving public has seen it all before.

Now, Bolt might well go on to join the ranks of cheats, if he's ever caught. But until then, I'm prepared to go out on a limb and say that I believe Bolt is less likely to be doping than any sprinter before him.

That may be naïve, and perhaps I want to be naive on this one - it beats cynicism - but I honestly get the perception, watching Bolt run, that his advantage lies not in the power and strength of sprinters before him, but in his co-ordination and some level of neuromuscular advantage which I must confess I can't fully pin down.

So while it is a 'bald assertion', Bolt alone doesn't arouse the same level of suspicion, partly because of his appearance, his running style, and because his prodigious talent as a junior doesn't create the same doubt one would get from the sudden emergence of a sprinter.

Are Jamaicans 'born sprinters'?
However, Jamaica's dominance in the sprint events doesn’t do Bolt's case any favours. Jamaica has now won every single short sprint at the Beijing Games - the 100m and 200m titles for both men and women belong to Jamaicans. In fact, out of a possible 12 medals, Jamaica now own four gold, two silvers, and one bronze.

They also have the 400m hurdles champ for women, and should win the relays too. For such a tiny island to dominate to that extent is generating a great deal of suspicion, thanks to the events they happen to be winning.

One argument is that the people are just "born sprinters", naturally endowed with some gene that allows them to run faster than anyone else. But then, the same gene pool has been there for decades, and Jamaica has never been this dominant. Good, yes, but not to this extent.

So I for one am dying to know what is happening in Jamaica. I'm not suggesting they're cheating, but whatever they are doing; I'd love to know, and to implement it elsewhere.

At the risk of losing my scientific objectivity, I do believe it to be possible that they might be so dominant without doping. But while I think that, there's this nagging voice at the back of my mind reminding me of just how many major champions over 100m or 200m have been dopers, so why should this be any different?

Success as sprinting is an automatic "flag", thanks to the exploits of Jones, Johnson et al. So while it's not a specific slight on anyone - regardless of where the medals were headed after Beijing, the same debate would be in play - it's a flag that will cast even more scrutiny on Bolt's performances. Let's hope this flag denotes coaching excellence and great genes, not systematic doping.

So what makes Bolt so brilliant?
But returning to Bolt, what then, is the key to his brilliance? Neuromuscular factors are surely involved. I've not seen such an elastic runner before, and I suspect that Bolt's advantages stem from a superior stretch-shortening cycle function, which allows energy to be stored and used more effectively.

We know from research that power output is proportional to the amount of energy that can be stored and released from the muscle-tendon junction during the muscle contraction. Add to this certain anthropometric measurements, and perhaps there are justifiable, credible reasons why one athlete can run a 19.30s time naturally.

Who knows? The only thing we do know is that if Bolt is one day tainted or caught, it might well be one of the biggest blows the sport has ever taken. Let's hope that day does not arrive.

(Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, August 2008. Dr Tucker also blogs on www.sportsscientists.com)

 
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