September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
Bolt wasn’t the only Jamaican star in Beijing. Shelly-Ann Fraser, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart had finished 1-2-3 in the women’s 100 metres. Veronica CampbellBrown had won the 200 metres and Melanie Walker the 400 metres hurdles. It begged the question: how had a tiny nation of approximately 2.7m people suddenly become so dominant at sprinting?
Several theories arose: most Jamaican sprinters can trace their origins to West Africa and inherited the African biomechanical advantages of lower subcutaneous fat, longer arms and legs, and narrower hips which influence power-to-weight ratio and stride length. A joint study by the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies had discovered the presence of a fast-twitch muscle gene — the strong form of the alpha actinin 3 gene — in 75% of Jamaican Olympians. And it has long been speculated that the phytosterols in yams — a staple of the Jamaican diet — stimulate cell growth and enhance muscle function. None of these was enough to explain Ben Johnson. Bolt was two years old in 1988 when Johnson — a native, like Bolt, of the parish of Trelawny, and a Jamaican until he emigrated to Canada in his teens with his mother — became the first Olympic 100 metres champion to break the world record for 20 years. A billion people across the planet — the largest audience ever — watched the race. Brian Mulroney, the prime minister of Canada, like most, was enthralled. “My congratulations on behalf of all Canadians,” he told the new champion by phone, live on television. “There is a big explosion here in Ottawa of joy.”
Sixty-two hours later there was a much larger explosion when Johnson’s positive test for steroids blasted an illusion of innocence and turned his fans into cynics. A huge shadow was cast on the sport. It lingered and grew darker every summer. Two more of the world’s fastest men — Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin — had their names scratched from the record books for doping. A string of Olympic champions — from Barcelona (Linford Christie), Atlanta (Alvin Harrison), Sydney (Marion Jones, Konstantinos Kenteris) and Athens ( Justin Gatlin) — have been suspended for cheating.
So in August 2008, when the Lightning Bolt struck Beijing, it was inevitable there would be thunder. “For someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don’t question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you’re a fool,” the former Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis told Sports Illustrated.
There were other questions. Jamaica had opted out of the regional arm of the World Anti-Doping Agency and had yet to establish an Anti-Doping Commission. Julien Dunkley, a member of the sprint relay team, had tested positive for an anabolic steroid a month before the Games. Darren Campbell, the 200 metres silver-medallist in Sydney, watched the gathering storm from a BBC radio commentary position. “Around me in the press box, the question immediately was, ‘Was it real? Can you believe it? Was he doped?’ ” he told The Times. “But as a sprinter, I know and understand what I saw. I have my fingers crossed that there will never be a problem with Bolt. What I saw that night I believed to be legal.”