Monday, August 24, 2009


Pulling a fast one on the world?
By Mark Zeigler
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

2:00 a.m. August 24, 2009

Is he or isn't he?

Clean or dirty?

Let's face it. It's what most people want to know about Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt after yet another staggering performance, this time at the World Track and Field Championships that concluded yesterday in Berlin. In Beijing last summer, he won the 100 and 200 meters and set world records in both. In Berlin he did the same thing, lowering the 100 record to 9.58 seconds and the 200 to an even more preposterous 19.19.

“It is always going to be in the sport,” the 23-year-old Bolt told reporters about the specter of doping, “and I'm trying to clear that up (by) continuing to run fast and being clean and letting people know that you don't have to take something to run fast. I'll just continue doing that, and one day people will stop asking that question.”

Until then, until people who run fast are no longer tainted by doping, the question remains in play.

Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin and Maurice Greene were the first four men to run under 9.80 seconds in the 100. All were eventually linked to doping or sanctioned for it, which would lead you to believe the drugs indeed work and question whether a human can run that fast without them. Now we're supposed to believe someone can run 9.58 clean.

Bolt has never tested positive, of course, but remember that Marion Jones passed an estimated 160 drug tests.

When I noticed many of the men's 100 finalists seemed jumpy, had dilated pupils, weren't blinking and were speaking a mile-a-minute in post-race interviews, I e-mailed BALCO doping guru Victor Conte about what sort of stimulant athletes could be using without fear of testing positive. Within minutes, he replied with a short paragraph outlining a stimulant program with an accessible and undetectable substance. Cheating is that easy.

He also added this: “Anyone who tests positive is an idiot.”

Two of Bolt's training partners did at the Jamaican championships in June, for a mysterious stimulant-like substance that authorities still can't decide what to make of. It could be a case of a tainted supplement, or it could be like modafinil was for BALCO – their secret stimulant not specifically included on the banned list.

European media reported a third Bolt training partner, Antigua and Barbuda's Daniel Bailey, had a positive test before the worlds. So far, no such positive has surfaced.

But at this point, it amounts to a few wisps of smoke surrounding a dominant athlete, nothing more.

It's fair to raise the question. It's just not fair to answer it. Gender verification The other big question in Berlin: Is she a he?

South Africa's Caster Semenya won the women's 800 by 20 meters, then faced questions from the IAAF, track's world governing body, as well as her fellow competitors about her gender. The IAAF has requested a complicated and time-consuming gender verification test, the results of which have yet to be announced.

Two thoughts:

What makes Semenya's performance so suspicious is her sudden improvement at age 18. Last October her PR in 800 was 2 minutes, 4.23 seconds; in Berlin she won in 1:55.45.

And the 800 – which requires a unique blend of power and endurance – seems to attract female champions with masculine features. Mozambique's Maria Mutola won seven indoor and three outdoor world titles from 1993 to 2006 and dealt with similar whispers. So did world record holder Jarmila Kratochvilova of the former Czechoslovakia in the '80s. The relays After both the U.S. men's and women's 4x100 relay teams were disqualified for dropping the baton at the 2008 Olympics, new USA Track & Field CEO Doug Logan wrote in his blog:

“Responsibility for the relay debacle lies with many people and many groups, from administration to coaches to athletes . . . We will do everything we can to figure out what went wrong and to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

A task force made several recommendations, some of which were implemented in the months before Berlin.

And what happens? Both 4x100 teams are DQed in the prelims – the men for passing the baton too early, the women for dropping it. Since 2004, it's the sixth disqualification out of 10 chances in an Olympics or World Championships.

The Brazilians, meanwhile, had no one in the semifinals of either the men's or women's individual 100 yet reached the finals in both 4x100 relays. Their secret? Tireless practice to perfect baton exchanges. NBC A B-minus.

The good: Live daily telecasts of the nine-day meet split between NBC (weekend) and Versus (weekdays), a huge improvement over past years.

The bad: Pretending that track and field is a sport without scandal, completely ignoring the doping issue and finally mentioning the Semenya controversy two days later.

The ugly: The jingoistic coverage that treated these like U.S. championships instead of world championships. Americans won 22 medals in Berlin. The rest of the planet won 119, but you'd never know that watching NBC. Mark Zeigler: (619) 293-2205;

Mark Zeigler: (619) 293-2205;

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