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You can't accuse Bolt and not Phelps, can you?

August 17, 2008 |  1:24 am

Jamaica's Usain Bolt heads to the finish line with his arms spread wide and still set a world record.

BEIJING -– Eleven years ago, at the world track and field championships in Athens, British sports journalist David Walsh asked me if I was writing about doping in every story.

Walsh's fixation on the subject was unusual among journalists only in its relentlessness. He later would become Lance Armstrong's nemesis, presenting evidence in two books that strongly suggested if did not prove that the seven-time Tour de France champion was a doper.

My answer to David back then was the same as it would be now, after Jamaica's Usain Bolt defied credulity with Saturday's world-record run while winning the Olympic 100 meters.

I have suspicions every time someone does something remarkable in track and field, but I do not mention it every time, out of what may be a wrongheaded occasional devotion to the idea of innocent until proved guilty.

I brought up the subject in print after Bolt set a world record of 9.72 at a May 31 meet in New York. It seemed hard to believe that someone who had run the 100 meters only five times at that point could already have been so fast.

I did not include it in my story after Bolt lowered the world record in Saturday's final to 9.69, a time that might have been ridiculously faster had the Jamaican 21-year-old not hammed it up in the final 20 meters of a race he won with ease.

Too much ease to run that fast, many would say, especially in a sport where three of the last six Olympic 100 champions have tested positive at some time in their careers, and a fourth has been implicated in doping by a witness in the Trevor Graham trial.

As a journalist, I find that this is one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situations.

I was among the hundreds of writers who made Marion Jones the focus of pre-Olympic coverage in 2000, even if I began to have doubts about her remarkable performances when she returned to track and field full time in 1997.

Was it wrong to build her up before Sydney? No more than the hyperbolic, see-no-evil coverage by the baseball media of the home-run chase by Mark McGwire, who admitted taking a steroid not banned by the sport. No more than the breathless coverage of college and pro football day after day, even if any rational person would wonder how its behemoths built their bodies.

Not long after Michael Johnson obliterated the world record in the 200 meters at the 1996 Olympics, I wrote about how sad it seemed that the immediate reaction among media had to be "How?" rather than "Wow!"

Did my latest Bolt story need a reference to doping? Perhaps, but only because his countryman Asafa Powell, the former world record holder, expressed his discontent that the Jamaicans seemed doping control targets since arriving here. That targeting apparently was in answer to questions about the lack of unannounced, out-of-competition testing on the island. I brought all that up in the preview of the race that appeared in Thursday's editions of The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Is it possible Bolt is just an extraordinary athlete? When I asked Jon Drummond, Tyson Gay's coach, what made Bolt remarkable, he said, "He is 6-foot-5."

Never before has there been a 100-meter Olympic champion so tall. It seemed impossible that a man that big could uncoil his body from the blocks quickly enough to avoid falling too far behind before his enormous strides and stride turnover could come into play.

If we doubt Bolt, why shouldn't we doubt Michael Phelps and his four individual world records in these Olympics?

The argument that swimming should get more benefit of the doubt because it has avoided the doping scandals of track is specious. We all know that athletes in many sports have found sophisticated methods to beat doping control for years.

Track was chastened into wider testing, including all medalists, after Ben Johnson tested positive after he won the 1988 Olympic 100 meters. Swimming never tested all Olympic medal winners until 1996 and until recently has lagged behind track in number of out-of-competition tests.

So, even as Phelps said Sunday that he had been tested about 40 times in the last six weeks, that is not proof positive he is clean.

But couldn't Phelps be the exception, because it already was clear after last year's world championships that he is one of a kind in the history of swimming? Couldn't Bolt be as well?

Imagine what athletes must feel about this. Many dirty ones have beaten the system, so the clean ones (yes, there are some) can't give complete assurances of their righteousness.

One of the joys of writing about sport is the chance to be witness and chronicler of the extraordinary. One of the worst things is wondering whether you can believe what you see -– and that you may eventually look like a fool for not having mentioned that possibility every time the extraordinary happens.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Jamaica's Usain Bolt heads to the finish line with his arms spread wide and still set a world record. Credit: Kay Nietfeld / EPA

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