Better Running Through Chemistry
(8/28/09) At the August 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt ran the fastest ever 100 meter sprint in a time of 9.58 seconds to win the gold medal. He did it by taking over a tenth of a second off the previous best mark. It was the largest ever margin of improvement in the 100 meter world record since the beginning of electronic timing nearly 50 years ago. He also won the 200 meter sprint in record-breaking time, breaking his own record by 0.11 seconds, finishing in a time of 19.19 seconds. In that race he won by the biggest margin in World Championships history, even though the race had three other athletes running under 19.90 seconds, the most ever in that event.
A nagging question comes to mind during all of this record setting. Why? People have been running races of this type for several generations. Humans cannot physically evolve in any appreciable manner in the span of a couple of generations so the questions remains: What is going on? Why are sprint records falling so easily and so quickly? There have been some advances in training and equipment, the tracks are faster, conditioning a little better. But this has been the case for years. What is it now that is different then before?
A similar thing hapened in another sport a few years back. For decades the single season home run record in major league baseball (MLB) had stood unchallenged. Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns in 1927; it would be 34 years until that record was broken when Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. And in 1961 baseball had expanded its schedule to 162 games (from 154) and added two expansion teams in the American League, which had the effect of thinning out the pitching around the league. Despite that it took Maris until the final game and at-bat to break the record by one lone home run.
Maris' record stood for 37 years, even longer than Ruth's. However, suddenly in the late part of the 20th century something changed in the game of baseball. Players starting hitting home runs in unheard of numbers. The 50 home run mark, once considered the mark of a superstar power hitter, was suddenly the domain of former utility infielders. When the season home run record was eclipsed by both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 it was with a bang. Not one but two players were able to do it in the same season. And not just by squeaking by as Maris had but by smashing the record by hitting 70 and 66 home runs respectively.
The assault continued with the record being broken a couple of years later, once again not just broken but smashed when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001.
All this record breaking aroused much curiosity. The media applied heavy scrutiny to the sudden change. When the matter was closely invstigated it was found that the reason for such a sudden change in human ability, one that had remained static for so long was in fact due to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). All of the top home run hitters and many of the lesser players were found guilty or strongly implicated of using a variety of artifical suppliments to enhance their natural physical skills.
It was obvious from the start that something was going on and it was not really a shock when the reason was uncovered. The resulting fan outrage forced the people that run MLB to do something to clean the game up. Which they did. Strident drug testing was put into place and it has resulted in an expected drop in home run numbers. No one is hitting 60 home runs anymore. Power numbers in the game of baseball are returning to the pre-PED era. Drug cheats are more easily discovered and punished. The results are in the numbers.
Compare this to professional sprinting. Not long ago several PED scandals shook the sport. Athletes that were considered the best in their sport, the people that set records and wowed crowds were, it turns out, cheaters. Some of the (once) hallowed names in the sport are now tainted by drug scandal. Fan outrage followed. The governing bodies promised strong testing programs to "clean up the sport" just as MLB had done.
And what has been the result? Certainly less people are being caught. But have the numbers returned to pre-PED testing levels? Nope. In fact, as Usain Bolt has demonstrated, not only are the times improving, they are improving astronomically.
To assume Usain Bolt is running clean one must put forth the idea that not only is he able to run faster than everybody out there now, he is able to run faster than anybody who ever "cheated" by using PEDs. This means that Bolt is running faster than the guys who filled themselves up with steroids, human growth hormones, testosterone, vasco-dialators, blood thickening techniques, etc. etc. We are asked to believe that Usain Bolt is both clean and better than each and every cheater from the recent past that did everything they could to improve their running ability.
Professional track is expecting the fans to believe that the current crop of runners are not only clean and free of drugs but are able to run better than all of those former world record holders that history has shown to be cheats.
If this is true then what is the point of testing? If Usain Bolt and all of the other top runners, the Tyson Gays, the Asafa Powells are "clean" and breaking records, then who needs the PEDs? In fact what could possibly be the advantage of PEDs if a bunch of the current runners are so much better than the past crop of guys that had to use them to win?
Clearly logic dictates that the current guys are cheats too. They just haven't been caught yet. It is implausible to assume that all of a sudden a group of people have arrived that are able to shatter the records that were set by drug cheats from the past without the help of PEDs. It is all the more implausible when one considers that many of the record holders are from a small island in the Carribean. In the 2009 World Championships, sprinters from Jamaica won 3 of the 6 medals in the 100 meter and 200 meter races for both the men and women.
The population of Jamaica is 2.8 million, approximately the size of Kansas. There is a long history of track success in the small country. There is also a long history of cheating. Glen Mills, the head coach of the Jamaican Olympics athletics team and Usain Bolt's trainer, has also trained Kim Collins, Dwain Chambers and Ray Stewart. All three of them have been found guilty or strongly implicated in the use of PEDs.
Jamaica is perfectly situated to be a testing ground for PEDs. It has all of the necessary requirements. The local population is largely of West African decent. West Africans are well developed for short sprinting. Furthermore, it is a nation of grinding poverty. Being poor opens the door for desperation, and desparate people will do a lot to avoid being poor. Jamaica's proximity to the U.S. also helps as the U.S. athletic system has a long history in the development of PEDs. American cheating probably started as retaliation over perceived cold-war drug cheating by the Eastern Bloc countries.
However U.S. athletes are at a disadvantage when it comes to drug cheating because the U.S. is a well developed country with extensive testing facilities. When it comes time to test athletes for PEDs (something that needs to be done year round as drug cheating is something that is done in "cycles"), it is very easy to test a U.S. athlete. Thus it is no coincidence that U.S. track is falling behind in results to tiny Jamaica.
There is no independant testing organization in the Carribean. If the Olympic Committee wants to test Jamaican athletes they have to fly to Jamaica, rent a broken down rental car and drive to a remote villiage, risking the crime and dysfunction that are a part of any third world nation, and then hope to find the athlete to be tested. If the athlete is not at home, is visiting in the next villiage, or cannot be found, they are not tested. It's not like in the U.S., where an athlete can be ordered to submit a sample in any one of the hundreds of facilities across the nation.
The same holds true for European athletes. It's easy to test them and therefore difficult to cheat. Generally if an athlete is not tested year round, he will not be caught. It also helps to have advance warning before testing. It's also possible that with the new medical technologies available, that it will be very difficult to catch anyone cheating unless an actual sample of the substance is sent to the testers beforehand so they know what to look for. This is what happened with "the clear," the BALCO-devised PED that eluded detection until a disgruntled rival track coach sent a vial full of it to the testing people.
Jamaican sprinters are being given a pass on the issue of PEDs for the same reason many minorities are treated differently than other people -- the rigid dogma of Political Correctness prevents the application of equal treatment.
German sprinter Tobias Unger called the Olympic 100 meter men's final a farce, voicing his complaints about the Jamaican sprinter to BILD sport. He laid the situation out in plain terms: "They do whatever they want on their island. Nothing happens to them. I'm the only one here at the Olympics who is registering with the doping controllers."
Unger is a world class sprinter running times from the pre-PED era. If all others were tested like he was then you can be sure that records wouldn’t be falling every meet, every year. But as long as the mainstream media refuses to criticize the programs of third world nations, and refuses to apply the same kind of scrutiny that was placed upon baseball then the cheating and record breaking will continue.
The truth is in the numbers.