(Sporting Life) Sebastian Coe is convinced sprint sensation Usain Bolt is a clean athlete but can understand why his stunning performance at the Beijing Olympics raised some eyebrows.
The Jamaican ace won three gold medals, breaking world records in the 100 metres and 200m before helping his country land the 4x100m relay title – also in a world-best time.
Bolt was a world junior champion at the age of 15 in 2002, winning the 200m in his home city of Kingston.
After years of struggling to fulfil his potential he produced the performances which had long been expected of him last summer.
But given that athletics has suffered from highly-publicised drug revelations, beginning with Ben Johnson being stripped of the 1988 Olympic 100m gold medal, Bolt’s remarkable times in China caused questions to be asked.
Coe, attending the IAAF council meeting in Berlin, had no hesitation when he was asked whether he felt Bolt was clean.
The two-time former Olympic 1,500m champion said: ‘I’ll give you a very unscientific answer to that, because he is a much better naturally talented athlete than Ben Johnson and if you look at the two of them, actually you should reach your own conclusions.’
Coe admitted: ‘People out there have a right to ask that question, given the disfiguring moments that our sport has had to deal with.’
Recalling Bolt’s emergence as a teenager, Coe added: ‘Anybody who really watches our sport knew what the guy was doing when he was running in the juniors and when he was a youth, running in those junior championships. The answer is very clear to me.’
Coe is now an IAAF vice-president, and he reflected on his sudden emergence as a world-beater, which was similar to the way in which Bolt quickly became a household name.
He said: ‘In 1978 I finished third in the European Championships in Prague and a year later I was a holder of three world records and one of those records (Coe’s 800m record) effectively stood for 18 years.
‘It’s very easy to jump to conclusions. I know how I got there and I know the thousands of miles and tons of steam and other things I had to do.’
As a staunch anti-drug campaigner, Coe admitted the image of athletics has been tarnished – particularly by the BALCO scandal in 2003 which saw over a dozen athletes, including Britain’s Dwain Chambers, handed drug suspensions.
‘We are a sport that tests more than any other international sport,’ said Coe.
‘We do have a zero tolerance to drug-taking. I’m not new to this; I was the first athlete to speak at an IOC congress in May 1981 in Baden Baden.
‘For two minutes and 40 seconds of that I spoke about the problem of drugs in sport.’
Coe’s track days coincided with the era when track and field turned professional and athletes were finally paid over the counter for their services.
He admits tracking down and punishing drug offenders at that time was not given the same priority as it is today.
‘My own sport was focusing in the late ’70s and early ’80s on whether it was philosophically accepting for me to run twice round the track and get paid, while we were rather ignoring the fact there were other things that were probably more important in the global scheme,’ he said.
‘So we came to this (drugs) debate probably a decade or so too late. We had quite a big catch-up to do and as you know, I don’t need to tell you the world changed quite dramatically in 1990.’
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was followed by exposure of the sophisticated doping systems employed in those countries, especially East Germany.
Coe said: ‘There were things which no governing body would have had significant control over.
‘We now do have more control. We have systems in place and the reality of it is that I would still rather face the short-term embarrassment of a BALCO than have the long-term dissent of people thinking it’s fake.’