I've been watching the World Track and Field Championships this week, and I'm not sure what to think about what I'm seeing.
Jamaica, a remarkably impoverished country of only 2.8 million, has won four of six possible medals in the men's and women's 100-meter dash, just as they did in Beijing. One preposterous world record has been set, and I'd bet on another falling later this week in the men's 200.
Let's just say I maintain a healthy dose of cynicism about all of this. I know it's not fair, but call it a product of the times.
When droves of sluggers suddenly began showing up at the baseball park with 30 pounds of new muscle and knocking down Roger Maris' decades-old season home run record almost routinely, weren't you suspicious, even if that dopey commissioner Bud Selig wasn't?
When Ben Johnson took the 100-meter record from 9.93 to 9.79 in the '88 Olympics and left Carl Lewis in another area code, a lot of track observers immediately suspected the worst.
When Florence Griffith Joyner suddenly started annihilating sprint records late in her career — records that will never be broken — I looked askance.
When female Chinese distance runners were producing outrageous times and records in the '90s and Coach Ma Junren said it was because they ate caterpillars, almost everyone suspected something foul.
When NFL players began showing up at 300 pounds or more and were still able to dash around the field like running backs, I had — and continue to have — strong doubts.
When world record holders and/or Olympic champions such as Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, Linford Christie and Johnson were busted for using performance-enhancing drugs, nobody should have been particularly surprised.
Do most people care anymore? Probably not. This subject has worn down fans. But I hate being conned. Sports are not supposed to be like a magic act — guess how we pulled off that feat!
I've learned to be suspicious whenever world records fall by huge chunks of time or when athletes make sudden and dramatic improvements in their performance and physique.
Jamaicans are reputed to have great, naturally gifted sprinters. Why not? Africa produces herds of great distance runners and has for decades. Yet, until last year, Jamaican sprinters had won only three gold medals in the 25 previous Summer Olympic Games — Don Quarrie in the 200 in 1976, Veronica Campbell in the 200 in 2004 and the women's 4 x 100 relay in 2004. In Beijing they won the men's and women's 100, the men's and women's 200 and the men's 4 x 100 relay and produced three world records (they also won the women's 400-meter hurdles).
Now they are repeating that act in Berlin.
This certainly didn't quell suspicion: Earlier this summer five Jamaican athletes were reported to have flunked drug tests. Later, they were cleared by Jamaica's anti-doping commission.
And what are we to make of Usain Bolt? Given the amazingly graceful and powerful way he moves at 6-foot-5, he might just be a wonderful freak of nature. After all, he posted a world junior record of 19.93 in the 200 when he was just 16. On the other hand, his best 100-meter time at the outset of the 2008 season was 10.03. Then he ran 9.72, 9.76 and 9.69 in one summer. On Sunday he ran 9.58.
World records for 100 meters are broken by hundredths. He took the world record of 9.74 that was held by Asafa Powell — another Jamaican — and lowered it .16 of a second. The last time we saw a world record fall like that it was Ben Johnson running 9.83 and 9.79 when the world record was 9.93 — and then he flunked a drug test.
Actually, I wonder if anyone can compete at the level of today's top international sprinters without PEDs. Consider this: In 1968, Jim Hines set the world record of 9.95. In 1993, Calvin Smith ran 9.93 and in 1988 Carl Lewis ran 9.92. In 20 years the world record was broken only twice, by a scant .03 of a second.
In the last 18 years, the world record has been broken 11 times and tied three times and has fallen from 9.92 to 9.58 – a staggering improvement of .34 of a second. Four men have run 9.79 or faster. Nine men have run 9.86 or faster.
Has training really improved that much? Are track surfaces that much faster? Are shoes that much better? Have humans advanced that quickly?