RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In the last decade, Jamaica, with Usain Bolt as the figurehead, has emerged as the world’s dominant sprinting power, usurping the United States from the throne it occupied since the start of the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
After winning five golds over 13 Olympics from 1948-2000, things suddenly changed for the Jamaicans.
They started with double-gold in Athens in 2004, at the 2008 Games they won five of the six sprint events and they took four of six in 2012, claiming 10 of the 18 medals on offer.
Bolt has six of those golds, two each in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay and is seeking to complete an improbable treble-treble in Rio, beginning with the men’s 100 on Sunday.
One man fascinated by the country’s rise was Richard Moore, an award-winning cycling journalist and author, who had become hooked on the murky underworld of athletics when he wrote his acclaimed book “The dirtiest race in history,” about Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympic 100 meters final.
Moore was well-steeped in the issue of doping and the media’s struggle to expose it after years on the cycling circuit and decided the Jamaican sprint phenomenon was something that could bear closer scrutiny.
He spent months investigating the scene, talking to athletes, coaches, anti-doping officials, and just about everyone else connected with the sport - although Bolt declined to become involved. The result was the “The Bolt Supremacy - Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory”, which is released in paperback this month.
Perhaps the sprinter was aware of Moore’s broad motivation of seeking to break a career-defining story, and the Scot makes no secret of the fact that he traveled to Jamaica hoping to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
However, after two months of exhaustive research he came away with armfuls of fascinating material but not a whisper of a suggestion that Bolt’s incredible achievements are illegally fueled.
“I felt that Bolt was this global figure who wasn’t subject to much scrutiny outside the Olympic Games, because athletics isn’t really a global sport beyond that,” Moore told Reuters.
“There had been such a up-beat atmosphere at the London Olympics that it seemed that nobody wanted to spoil the party by asking about doping.
“I felt it hadn’t been that well explored so I did a lot of interviews with a lot of the people he trained with and his coaches and found them pretty open.”
Moore’s research coincided with a dark period for Jamaican sprinting, with a succession of elite, champion athletes testing positive.
Former world record-holder Asafa Powell, double Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown and Olympic silver medalist Sherone Simpson were in trouble, albeit for “lighter offences” involving stimulants, and several cases were eventually overturned.
Moore concluded that those tests, and others, were an indication not of any sustained, organized system of doping, but of “stupidity”.
“I think it was a failure of resources,” he said. “Some of the anti-doping mistakes are not of a corrupt system but a under-resourced one where people are trying to do their best against the odds.
“I think if Jamaica tried to organize a systematic doping program their athletes would be caught on day one.
“Powell and Yohan Blake (in 2009) were probably stupid mistakes but you don’t know if there is anything darker beyond that.”
Instead of drugs, Moore ascribes Jamaica’s remarkable rise to a more probable combination of factors, some physical but more cultural.
He likens the situation to that of rugby in New Zealand, a country whose world presence is virtually defined by the dominant All Blacks and where every child aspires to wear that famous shirt.
The excitement and sheer quality of “The Champs” where huge crowds watch the annual schools championship, are an indication of how deep the sport runs in Jamaican society and success at the highest level naturally spurs the next generation.
“There’s nowhere else in the world where athletics is the number one sport,” he said. “The incredible culture of athletics and sprinting there has deep roots.”
He also says that pride extends to the exclusion of some dopers, pointing out that Powell is now based in the United States after effectively being drummed out of his home country by the outrage at his positive.
Moore’s conclusion was that the country’s extraordinary pride and identity in its sprinters is probably the key driver in its excellence, but the drip-feed of positive tests over recent years has left the case still open.
“I spoke to a lot of people,” he said. “But just because I didn’t find anything it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Editing by Ed Osmond