Usain Bolt’s singular misfortune this month was to run the fastest men’s 100 metres ever at a time when his sport’s credibility has never been lower.
Once the sporting world would have heralded the young Jamaican and marvelled at the prospect of an Olympic final featuring his compatriot Asafa Powell and American world champion Tyson Gay.
Instead Bolt’s dazzling 9.72-second run in New York last Saturday has been obscured by a series of mind-numbing doping scandals in the buildup to the Beijing Games.
On Friday Justin Gatlin, one of the half dozen men who have clocked times under 9.80 in the 100, failed in his appeal against a four-year doping ban for a 2006 offence.
Last week sprint coach Trevor Graham was convicted on one count of lying to federal agents investigating the BALCO laboratory, which sold illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
At Graham’s trial, 1991 world 400 metres champion Antonio Pettigrew admitted to doping since 1996. In response Michael Johnson said he would return the gold medal he won for the 2000 Sydney Olympics 4×400 metres relay in a team including Pettigrew.
“Can we now ever escape the nagging thoughts at the back of our minds planted by one drug expose after another?” asked Britain’s former world 1,500 metres champion Steve Cram in a column in The Guardian.
“Are the performances of those who have since been found to be cheats beyond the scope of normal athletes? Or is there still room for the supremely gifted to break barriers that seem almost unnatural?”
Cram, who concluded that Bolt’s progression since his days in the junior ranks showed he was not an instantly suspicious overnight sensation, ran in the 1988 Seoul Olympics where Ben Johnson tested positive after winning the 100 metres in 9.79 seconds. Johnson’s time was expunged from the record books in the following year.
Tim Montgomery, the first man to run faster than Johnson with his startling 9.78 seconds in Paris six years ago, fell from grace even more spectacularly than Johnson.
He, too, lost his record after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency concluded he had been taking banned substances at the time. Last month he was sentenced to 46 months in prison for his role in a cheque fraud scheme while his former partner Marion Jones has lost her five Sydney medals and been sentenced to six months in jail for misleading investigators into the fraud and lying about steroid use.
The only other two men to clock under 9.80 are Maurice Greene, who retired this year, and Powell.
To add to the sport’s woes British sprinter Dwain Chambers, who tested positive for THG, a drug designed in the BALCO laboratory, plans to appeal against his lifetime ban from the Olympics. Chambers, who as part of his rehabilitation has confessed to taking a potentially lethal combination of drugs, won a 100 metres race in Greece this week.
Since Pettigrew’s confession, the roll call of drug offenders on the track from the otherwise spectacularly successful Sydney Olympics makes even grimmer reading.
Montgomery won a gold in the 4×100 relay although he ran in the heats only. Twins Alvin and Calvin Harrison and Jerome Young, team mates of Pettigrew and Johnson in the 4×400 relay have served drug bans.
Greek Costas Kenteris, the surprise winner of the men’s 200 metres, was banned after missing tests before the 2004 Athens Games. Jones, hailed at the time as the radiant face of the Sydney Games, won the 100-200 sprint double and was a member of the 4×400 gold-medal winning team.
The dispiriting news for the embattled International Association of Athletics Federations is that none of the above ever failed a drugs tests.
“You can safely say in the last four, five, six years the cheaters have been ahead and they have won,” Michael Johnson told Reuters in a telephone interview. “When people think ‘I could go to jail for just using steroids’ then maybe that would help.”
World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman believes the so-called non-analytical positives, when athletes can be banned on evidence other than a positive sample, is the major breakthrough that sport in general needs.
“Marion Jones, I think, was a huge wakeup call for the United States,” Howman told Reuters by telephone. “She was a poster girl, somebody they all thought particularly highly of, and all of a sudden we find she’s been cheating for seven years. No one is sticking up for her now, they probably realise she was one of the worst offenders.
“In terms of significance that’s a major one. It’s very disappointing on one hand but it’s a major step.
“Somebody who has managed not only to cheat the public but also the system because none of her urine tests were positive was forced into the corner by evidence obtained by other means.”