Tag Archives: Doping

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” by Richard Moore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man cannot be both academically bright and good at sports. This is why my student dorm-mate Dan Dan the Ladies’ Man was so infuriating. Not only did he play for multiple teams across several sports, but he was a straight-A student with aftershave-advert good looks to boot. As his nickname suggests, he had an easy manner with the opposite sex and was rarely without a girlfriend. He was charming too, and a genuinely nice man to be around. Bastard.

One day, my friend John and I hit upon what we called “The Deductive Method”. Following a marathon session of Championship Manager, we had the revelation that all men must be born with 100 points, which are then allocated to brainpower, looks, athleticism etc. In Dan’s case we realised that he had spent his points so highly in virtually all areas that there was only one inescapable conclusion. Below the waist, he had to be built like a Ken-doll.

In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the Deductive Method would suggest that being very fast is a trade-off for the disadvantages of poverty and violence that plague the island. However, others who are less familiar with my personal brand of pseudo-science believe that there may be another explanation for all those medals: drugs. In The Bolt Supremacy, Richard Moore (see review of his earlier book “The Dirtiest Race in History”) visits Jamaica to explore the running culture for himself and see if he can find evidence of cheating. He sets out with some understandable reservations about Jamaica’s success. The 10 fastest 100m times in history are held by 5 men – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Johan Blake, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. 3 of these are Jamaicans (Bolt, Blake and Johan), and of the 5 men only Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances. Some think that he has simply been better at beating the testers.

But is this the whole story? Both Blake and Powell claim they tested positive for stimulants found in supplements they believed were legal. Americans have typically tested positive for steroids or testosterone, which have more proven performance-enhancing benefits. The Jamaican media typically takes great offense at doping allegations and the publicity surrounding failed tests – of course they do. They excuse their runners by saying they are guilty of negligence and carelessness rather than deliberate cheating. The argument goes that this small impoverished island lacks the infrastructure for systematic doping, and that the teams around their athletes lack sophisticated awareness of the contents of sports supplements.

Whether you agree or not, the strong sense of national pride in its runners displayed by the Jamaican media provides some insight into the island’s success. This is a country where the Prime Minister was personally involved in bringing a young Usain Bolt from his rural village to the capital, Kingston. A country where athletics is bigger than football. A country where the biggest event in the sporting calendar is a high-school track and field championship.

“Champs”, as it is known, is the centre of Jamaican athletics. Schools from across the island compete over several days, and winners become national heroes and media stars. One school in particular (Calabar) has an extraordinary roll-call of alumni, including multiple Olympians and world record holders. Track and field is the equivalent of American high-school football; it is at the heart of many communities, and the coaches are professionals, not teachers leading physical education classes in their spare time.

One explanation of Jamaica’s “sprint factory” is therefore that it is a culture that celebrates athletics to an unusual degree. In The Sports Gene (see review), David Epstein suggests that in another country Bolt would have been funnelled into a career as a basketball player, but as a Jamaican he aspired to be a runner. Are there physiological explanations as well? Genes may also play a part in Bolt’s success. Many Jamaicans are descended from slaves, and one theory suggests that because only the toughest slaves survived the brutal journey from Africa, today’s Jamaicans have been self-selected for strength. In addition, Bolt, Blake and many other stars are from an area of the island where slaves revolted against their masters and successfully fought for their freedom. Some argue there are therefore “warrior genes” in this region’s population of just 78,000 that explain their physical prowess. Finally, a statistically significant and curious number of top sprinters are the youngest of several brothers. No-one is quite sure why this makes a difference, but it does.

Genetics and family history may therefore be a factor. However, world-class sprinting is a sport about individuals, and it is individuals who have brought about the island’s success. As much as anything, Moore’s book is a series of meetings with remarkable Jamaicans. There is a chapter where he interviews Bolt’s dad, and we learn that he used to police Usain’s school attendance and make sure he wasn’t skipping class and training to play video games (“I would strap him”). We meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, whose humble nature means she lacks the world-dominating profile of Bolt. Fraser-Pryce’s story is a genuinely touching one of determination and using her talent to pull herself and her family out of the ghetto…and opening a hairdressing salon in the process.

We also encounter the man who is perhaps the architect of Jamaica’s success. Dennis Johnson returned from a US college scholarship in the early 1960s and decided that he was going to teach Jamaicans how to run fast. Bizarrely, he got sponsorship from a cigarette company and drove around the country in his Rothmans van on a one-man roadshow to educate a generation of runners and coaches about technique and sprinting mechanics. Today’s two top Jamaican coaches – Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills – were both attendees. We learn a lot about the rivalry between these two men, including their uncanny eye for talent. Asafa Powell was not a strong performer at Champs, but Francis spotted his raw potential.

Bolt is an entirely different story, as his talent was evident from an early age. For those who think he sprang out of nowhere in 2008, Moore shows how Jamaica had been waiting for Bolt to make his mark for some time. He set records at Champs and the newspapers tipped him for great things. He struggled initially to make the transition from junior to senior, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 2004 Olympics, and was heavily criticised in the press. Bolt looks happy-go-lucky, but there is a ton of work behind his performances. Realising that he was physically weak and gangly, he spent considerable time in the gym to build up his muscle mass. He spent hours working on his technique and would regularly do sessions that made him vomit. Whether Bolt dopes or not, his work-rate is undeniable.

The Bolt Supremacy is fascinating, and if I had one criticism, it is that after a while I found the constant questions about doping a distraction. Clearly something unique is happening in Jamaica. The comments from various scientists that Moore consults are illuminating. “They may not be training very effectively at all” says Yannis Pitsiladis, director of the sub-2-hour marathon project. Imagine how dominant Jamaica could be if more scientific precision was brought to training methods. Dennis Johnson says that Jamaicans are not actually running much faster than the sprinters of the 1948; the faster times can be attributed to improved tracks and kit. Pitsiladis thinks that there is nothing inherently “black” about sprinting, and there is no reason why white sprinters cannot run this fast if they trained hard. Interestingly, he thinks that the Dutch may be a rich gene pool for sprinting, and the recent success of Daphne Schippers would appear to support this.

The nature of Jamaican dominance will evolve over time. Moore meets some of the stars of tomorrow, and they are not 100m specialists. They are hurdlers and 400m runners, suggesting we may be on the verge of a great era for events that have not been in the spotlight. After all, when Bolt retires, it may take a while before anyone truly comes close to taking his place.

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“Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley and America’s Greatest Marathon” by John Brant

As I write this, I am a shambles of a man. My legs have been replaced with twin pain sticks. Negotiating stairs requires abseiling equipment. Going to the toilet requires the assistance of a full SWAT team. Yes, I have just completed a marathon…and it went very, very badly. Inevitably this means I am sat on my sofa feeling glum and muttering “never again”, while simultaneously looking up the dates and course maps for “revenge marathons” next year.

Reading Duel in the Sun, an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, made me realise that, despite my collapse from sub-3 pace to 11 minute mile-ing, I hadn’t actually pushed my physical barriers at all. 1982 became the stuff of legend not only because Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley finished within 2 seconds of each other, but because the toll of the race effectively destroyed both men’s athletic careers. John Brant’s gripping book cleverly interweaves the narrative of that day with the surprising backstory and terrible consequences.

To runners of my generation, Salazar is better known as Mo Farah’s coach, a man with allegedly questionable attitudes towards performance-enhancing medication. Reading this book helped me better appreciate his mindset. In his prime, Salazar was a teenage prodigy and fearsome competitor, winning the New York Marathon 3 times between 1980-2. Tapering was for wimps, and he would do intensive speedwork and flat-out 10ks days before a marathon. In both running and life, he was a man of extremes, and once pushed himself so hard at the Falmouth Road Race that he collapsed and was read his last rites by a Catholic priest.

Following Boston in 1982, he spent years unable to train properly, constantly suffering from mysterious breathing difficulties. It would later transpire that he had lost 40% of his lung function by over-exerting that day. Salazar’s career was cut short because pushing the body to absolute extremes was not sustainable. In the athletes he coaches, it seems he seeks people who can push themselves super-hard, but whom he can help with a more scientific attitude towards recovery and training than he himself followed. The question is, I suppose, where science ends and cheating begins.

For those who think Salazar arrogant and aloof, his family’s story is illuminating. His religious father was a college friend and early supporter of Fidel Castro, but was then forced to flee Cuba when he became increasingly critical of Castro’s communism and godless government. The son inherited his dad’s strong faith and sense of machismo. Salazar’s innate conservatism would occasionally lead him to be shocked by the actions of his fellow athletes…although even I was gobsmacked by the author’s revelation that the race director of the first London Marathon in 1981 had hired “escorts” for the elites!

At that very same London Marathon, Dick Beardsley was responsible for one of the most iconic images in British running. He and Inge Simonsen crossed the finish line in joint first place, holding hands as they did so. Many found the gesture a heart-warming image of solidarity and comradeship. Salazar, tellingly, was disgusted by the lack of zeal to win. Yet Beardsley was no hippy. He ran because he needed to earn, and he entered and won an extraordinary number of races, averaging a marathon every 8-10 weeks. Despite this pedigree, in the pre-race build-up, Salazar didn’t even acknowledge Beardsley as a threat.

That would change during the race itself. For mile after mile, the two men stuck together. One of the best sections in the book highlights racing tactics that you simply cannot see on TV coverage. The surges. The deliberate attempts to disrupt rhythm. The mind games. But neither man was able to break the other.

Beardsley would ultimately push himself too hard that day, overriding his brain’s ‘central governor’. Within weeks he suffered a career-ending injury, continuing a terrible chain of events that would result in years as a pain-killer addict and prescription-fraud felon. I have rarely read a better description of addiction as an illness that the sufferer simply cannot control.

Both men would eventually find redemption. Salazar found a cure of sorts in – of all things – Prozac, which re-set his cortical-enzyme levels, and allowed him to compete in – and win – his final race, the Comrades ultramarathon. Interestingly, thyroid medication – the subject of many of the allegations against him as a coach – was something he tried but which did not help his condition. Taking Prozac exposed him to accusations of using a performance-enhancing drug, although he was public about it, and it was not on the banned list. Perhaps the most significant thing about his Prozac years is that it forced him to admit that he also suffered from depression. For the machismo-ridden “man of valour”, in an era when athletes did not discuss mental health issues, this was a turning point in making him more humble.

Beardsley found a path back to normal life by simply getting caught, which he had craved for years. The legal and rehab processes that followed allowed him to slowly, painfully rebuild his life. He set up an annual half-marathon in Detroit Lakes, and in 2003 he even had a special guest runner: Salazar. The two men who had barely spoken in 1982 had become friends over the years, each recognising something of themselves in the other’s suffering.

This is an enthralling story of the consequences of pushing the human body and mind to its very limits, and what it means to truly race. For all of us runners, it is a cautionary tale that extreme exercise can be seriously damaging to your health, and maybe – just maybe – there are other things in life worth keeping in balance.

Nonsense. I have of course chosen to ignore that message entirely, and have signed up for the Liverpool Marathon in the course of writing this review. What’s the loss of a little lung function in the pursuit of a sub-3?

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“Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon” by Ed Caesar

Elite marathon running suffers from what I call the “Kiprotich Problem”. The men’s Olympic marathon in 2012 featured high drama and one of the most shocking turnarounds and upsets in the sport. Having been whittled down to a leading pack of 3 runners, one of them fell off the pace, apparently in some pain. The question now was whether gold would go to the world champion, or to the man who had won the London Marathon earlier in the year. Instead, out of nowhere, the man in pain suddenly came surging back, overtaking the other two and claiming a surprise gold. The fact he was an unheralded Ugandan, from a country that hadn’t topped a podium since 1972, made it all the more inspirational. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Uganda, he was rewarded with $80,000, a presidential state breakfast, and promptly promoted to Assistant Superintendent at his day job in the Ugandan prison service.

If you follow elite marathon running, all of this was genuinely exciting. Your non-running friends and family, on the other hand, would have seen a race where a runner called (Stephen) Kiprotich beat another runner called (Wilson Kipsang) Kiprotich. Admittedly silver went to a man called Abel Kirui, which is a cracking name for anyone’s firstborn, but the fact remains that elite marathoners come across to the uninitiated as…well…samey.

Ed Caesar’s excellent Two Hours has an admirable mission. The East African runners that we see winning big city marathons are not boring, identikit athletes, blessed by good genes. Instead, in a phrase I love, he describes them as “rare, intriguing men”, and he sets out to prove it.

Caesar has spent considerable time in Kenya, getting to know top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Geoffrey Mutai. In TV interviews, these men come across as polite, easy-going and somewhat shy, and generally being unbothered if beaten in a race. What is very apparent from this book is that this is all a facade. These are intensely driven and competitive men, who kick themselves for months if they lose. It is Mutai’s story around which Caesar chooses to structure his narrative, providing a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of an elite marathoner. Boring? Hardly. This is a man who was nearly chopped up by a machete-wielding mob in 2008. These are not ordinary, mundane lives.

When Mutai won Boston in 2011, he ran the fastest time ever recorded over 26.2 miles. What he didn’t realise until afterwards was that this could not be an official world record, because Boston, with its net downhill and point-to-point course, is not eligible for records. On top of that, people talked about his performance being wind-assisted. In Caesar’s account, despite clinching $500,000 in that race, Mutai was privately tortured and infuriated by this downgrading of his achievement, and from that point on he had something additional to prove to his critics. That something was the quest to set a new world record, and perhaps be the first man to run a sub-2.

Is a sub-2 physically possible? Interestingly, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991 by scientist Mike Joyner, who calculated that if a man had the best possible values for lactate threshold, running economy and VO2 Max, they could run 1 hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. 1:57:58. This highly specific time has been the subject of controversy ever since, with “dreamers” believing it gives evidence we will smash the barrier one day, perhaps within the next decade, while naysayers such as Ross Tucker (of the Science of Sport blog) think that it simply will not happen because we are already at the edge of racing performance; shaving seconds off the record is conceivable, but knocking off 3 minutes is fantasy.

Perhaps there are other means of making the fantasy a reality? When you read Adharanand Finn’s enjoyable Running with the Kenyans, based on Finn’s experience of living in Iten, you see Kenyan training centres as places of harmony, fellowship and neighbourliness. Ed Caesar certainly shares that view, but he also presents an interesting balance to this image; the East African running community is also a snakepit of gossip, rumour and slander. All the top marathoners, including Mutai, are suspected (on minimal evidence) by their slower peers of doping. “You think you can run 2:03, only with blood?” said one 2:10 marathoner to the author with incredulity, claiming that anything faster than 2:06 was suspicious. Caesar, for his part, believes that Mutai is clean, but he makes a good point that is obvious when you read it: we should pity the poor bastard who does break two hours, because he will be hounded by accusations of cheating for the rest of his life.

For me, one of the highlight sections of the book is the breathless account of the 2013 London Marathon, which could also be named The One Where It All Went Pear-Shaped. This race featured the greatest line-up ever (including me), and everything about it suggested “fast time”. Then the men went off at a phenomenally quick pace, led by Emmanuel Mutai (no relation, again exemplifying the Kiprotich Problem), who threw in surge after suicidal surge to break up the pack. The elite group consequently detonated, with the world’s top runners crossing the line in relatively embarrassing times, and the eventual winner coming from around 12 places down to overtake a spent Emmanuel Mutai in the last mile, breaking the tape in a “pedestrian” 2:06:04. Mutai apparently came in for a lot of anger behind closed doors from the other runners for “killing” them and denying a 2:03 or 2:04 finish, but he was simply treating it as a race, not a time trial. And in a race, a winner aims to bury his competitors.

This is why, both Caesar and Geoffrey Mutai conclude, we are unlikely to see a sub-2 in the current climate. Not because the runners can’t do it – Mutai is convinced it can be done – but because the events are not designed to facilitate it. Most of the main city marathons are big-money races, where winning will always take precedence over setting records. What is needed is a special event where a sub-2 is the only goal, with a huge number of pacemakers acting as windbreakers, and a team of stars driving each other on, all of whom would get big paydays whoever actually broke the barrier. To generate the money needed to make this happen, Caesar envisages a big show modelled on championship boxing matches, where much of the excitement is generated in the build-up, accompanied by attention-grabbing HBO-style documentaries about the training and preparations for the race.

But first, marathoning would have to overcome the Kiprotich Problem, and get the wider public interested in these characters, their stories, and what is at stake. A copy of the superb Two Hours, pressed into the right hands, would be a good start.

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“The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final” by Richard Moore

Seoul 1988 was ‘my’ Olympics. Born in 1980, I was too young to appreciate the LA Olympics in 1984, but I got caught up in the buzz of Seoul. I even remember trying to persuade my parents to buy me a toy of the official mascot, Hodori the tiger (I failed).

The crowning event of that Olympics was always going to be the 100m final, with the two great rivals Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson going head to head to settle once and for all who was the best in the world. Lewis had dominated the 100m for years, but in the year leading up to the Olympics, Johnson had completely owned the event, taking Lewis’ world title in 1987 and setting new world records on the way to the summer of 1988.

The outcome and fallout from the 1988 final is well known, but Richard Moore’s pacy account shows how little most of us know about what took place. Moore has interviewed all 8 of the men who ran in that race. What makes the book particularly gripping is how open Ben Johnson is about his career and use of illegal drugs, and the entire underworld operation required to run a successful doping programme.

Johnson is frank about what he did, and comes across mostly sympathetically as the figurehead for practices that were widespread in athletics at the time. 6 of the finalists in 1988 were subsequently found guilty of, or implicated in, doping offences. There are fascinating hints of a conspiracy at work. For one thing, you learn from this book that Johnson should never have been caught. Steroids improve performance by allowing the athlete to recover much more quickly from intense sessions and train twice as hard. Unlike EPO, as favoured by Lance Armstrong, steroids don’t actually help in the race itself, so steroid users typically stop taking them weeks before they race, so that they can flush them out of their system to avoid detection. Johnson is therefore convinced that his drink was spiked by the Lewis team, and there is certainly a mysterious character in Johnson’s dressing room whose presence is difficult to explain.

Lewis himself is the most elusive character in the book, and Moore struggles to track him down. The book reminds you what a formidable athlete he was in his prime, winning gold in four different Olympic events, including the long jump. However, there are strong hints that Lewis himself used performance enhancing drugs, and at least two known cases where he was found positive for an unnamed substance, but was subsequently let off with a warning. The reader’s view of Lewis is inevitably prejudiced by the fact that he was clearly unpleasantly arrogant at the time, although Moore highlights the devastating loss of his father and persistent press rumours about his sexuality as mitigating factors for Lewis’ aloofness.

Ultimately we are left to judge whether Johnson is right to say to Lewis “I beat you fair and square. You only beat me in the doping room”. However, the incidental details in the book include some hilarious nuggets for future pub quizzes:

Linford Christie is far, far grumpier than I remember from the ‘tunnel vision’ hero of my childhood. He was also already a grandad at the age of 36, which might have something to do with it.

Carl Lewis actually felt his true calling lay outside athletics, and thought his eventual success would come in acting or singing. His attempts to break into the music industry in the 1980s are on YouTube – you owe it to yourself to watch his hit song ‘Break it Up’.

Ben Johnson was a prodigious drinker. 24 hours before the heats (48 hours before the final) Johnson went out on a date with a 400m runner and was knocking back champagne. Even more astonishingly, immediately after his victory in the final, Johnson had 8 – yes, eight! – beers.

To me, that’s the key message of the book. However much we know he is a dirty, dirty cheat who did not deserve his medal, we can still respect a man who values the importance of a post-race pint.

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