The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory, by Richard Moore
This is a book that straddles the ambiguous space between being a celebration of Jamaican supremacy in sprint races and a skeptical view of the likelihood that some sort of cheating is going on because the results are just too good. The author encourages the reader to ponder the arguments that people make for why it is that Jamaicans have been so successful, demolishing various arguments but not necessarily coming to any arguments himself. If this is not the most satisfying of books, therefore, because the author seems to be unable or unwilling to make a firm stand. And perhaps there is not enough evidence to make a firm stand. The reader is left to judge the case with limited information and one’s own prejudices and perspectives, and the author is not too heavy-handed when it comes to discussing the temptations as well as the limitations of Jamaica as a sporting powerhouse and also a culture where success in running has allowed for at least a decent living for their current crop of athletes in the context of Jamaica if not necessarily the context for the larger world as a whole.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into nineteen chapters. Throughout the book the author seeks to interview people, finding himself, for example, tantalizingly close but also so far from Bolt, whose disinclination to talk to the interviewer comes off as being at least a little bit shady. The author is a journo, though, so it’s not as if people tend to want to talk to such people. Still, the author explores Bolt’s background, the racing culture that has developed for decades in Jamaica, including having one of if not the most developed high school track racing culture that exists in the world. There is a discussion of the educational infrastructure, the crisis of so few young men wanting to go to university, the blandishment of racing for people from poor and background areas of rural or urban poverty, and the temptations that come from those who would seek to take advantage of others and the lure of cutting off hundredths of a second from one’s time. By and large if it is not a tell all account it is at least a tell-most account.
Speaking personally, I do not think that Jamaica is running a sophisticated doping operation with its runners. Like some others, I do not believe Jamaica has the wherewithal to conduct a sophisticated operation in anything at this particular moment in history. Whether or not there are some genetic advantages that Jamaicans have or whether (as I would tend to lean towards) there are social infrastructures that encouraging running as a means of escape from poverty, it does appear as if Jamaica’s success involves not only the development of a competitive atmosphere of racing but also social factors that encourage running and that allow runners to profit from their athletic ability in Jamaica that would not necessarily be the case in other places. The success of Jamaica’s runners does lead to an atmosphere where some shadiness likely occurs but athletics in general is pretty shady and everyone is looking for any advantage that will allow them to overcome their rivals. The author seems to concur with this, painting Jamaica’s operation as quaint and amateur and not nearly the sort of professional operation one would expect if it was running a Lance Armstrongesque operation of sophisticated doping and cheating. Rather, Jamaica has built an environment where there is motivation to run as a way of getting scholarships and a chance at fame through running and a decent professional life in coaching afterwards, perhaps. And that is enough to keep the factory going.