How Much Faster Could the Fastest Human on the Planet Be?

Usain Bolt competes in the men’s 200-m final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Historically, the pursuit to become the fastest sprinter in the world has not been a drug-free one. The 1988 Olympic men’s 100-meter final, for example, is known as perhaps the most tainted track-and-field race ever — it was immortalized in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary 9.79*, which gets its title from the time ran by the winner, Canadian Ben Johnson, who was later disqualified for a positive steroid test. But Johnson was not the only competitor in that race to break the sport’s doping rules. Six of the eight finalists either tested positive for a banned substance or have been linked to the use of one. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how much cleaner the sport has become since then. Of the eight competitors in the 2012 Olympic men’s 100-meter final, four have tested positive for drugs. And since many doping infractions aren’t revealed until years later, when more scientifically sophisticated testing can be applied to older frozen blood and urine samples, no one knows what the future will divulge. In fact, there will likely never be another Olympic or world 100-meter champion whose success will not immediately be questioned for having been achieved without the use of banned substances.

Usain Bolt, the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist, who holds the world record in the event with a time of 9.58 seconds, set in 2009, is no exception. Though Bolt has largely flown above track-and-field’s doping problem, many articles mention suspicions about him. An anti-doping commission in Jamaica wasn’t even established until 2008, and prior to the 2012 Olympics the testing by the commission was reportedly not very rigorous. But Bolt has never tested positive for any banned substance, and he has always said, as he did in a profile in the Guardian in November, “I feel good because I know I’ve done it clean.” He’s one of few 100-meter runners who can say that. Of the six fastest 100-meter runners in history, Bolt is the only one who has never tested positive for the use of a banned substance.

To get an idea of what’s at stake for sprinters, consider this: Bolt won the 2012 Olympics with a time of 9.63 seconds, the second-fastest time ever. American Ryan Bailey, who is currently trying to forge a second career in bobsledding, finished fifth, at 9.88 — 0.25 seconds behind Bolt, which is, roughly speaking, the length of time it takes to blink. Last year, according to Forbes, Bolt made $32.5 million. Bailey stands to make about $25,000 a year as a bobsledder. With so much on the line, it makes sense why a sprinter might attempt to use banned substances. But how much of an advantage is actually gained?

There are three broad classes of performance-enhancing drugs, including those that make athletes stronger, such as testosterone; those that improve endurance, such as EPO (erythropoietin); and stimulants, such as amphetamines, which sharpen an athlete’s focus and can quicken reaction time at the start of a race. An athlete may take these substances by themselves or in conjunction with others.

“Every imaginable cocktail has been tried,” says Dr. Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “This is the devil’s playground.”

Testosterone, the most well-known doping drug for sprinters, is an anabolic steroid that improves the synthesis of muscle protein and can provide a runner with increased power and speed. It comes in many forms, such as a time-release pellet the size of a grain of rice that gets inserted through a tiny incision in the skin, or as a candy, like a Life Saver, in 28 different flavors, including “tutti frutti” and “piña colada.” But it’s most difficult to detect when it’s used as a fast-acting cream or gel, which can be applied directly to the skin, and therefore enter one’s bloodstream directly. Using this method, the steroid “will peak in your bloodstream in three or four hours and then by six hours later you’re back down to the allowable limit,” says Victor Conte, who as the founder of Balco, a California nutritional supplements lab, pleaded guilty in 2005 to distributing anabolic steroids to athletes. Several of track and field’s top runners were among those linked to Balco at the time.

Ben Johnson crosses the finish line to win the Olympic 100-m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Carl Lewis takes second. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

The most powerful banned substance for sprinters, says Conte, who now runs Snac System, an all-natural sports-nutrition company, is EPO. While it is more often associated with improving results for long-distance runners because of its ability to increase oxygen intake, EPO allows sprinters to do more training repetitions and to do them more intensely. “The deeper the training load long-term throughout an off-season, the greater the gains,” Conte says.

As Joyner points out, “One of the things that people fail to recognize about doping in general is that it facilitates harder training.”

Nearly as powerful as EPO is the insulin-like growth factor IGF-1, another fast-acting injectable substance that aids a runner’s recovery from training. Yet, according to the United States Anti-Doping Agency, “although IGF-1 can be identified in urine, there is no current criterion for detecting abuse in this way.”

High-profile athletes can be tested for performance-enhancing drugs anytime between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. 365 days a year, and they need to notify their national anti-doping agency of where they will be on every one of those days. But they are only required to give their exact whereabouts for one hour of each day. While World Anti-Doping Agency rules state that an athlete can miss two tests within a 12-month period without incurring a doping violation, Conte counters that outside of those one-hour time frames, “you’re not really obligated to be wherever you say you are,” and therefore it’s difficult to be charged with a missed test at those hours.

“The dosage, the administration, the frequency — these are all timed around when you’ve told the anti-doping agency you’ll be available to be drug tested,” Conte says. (Ryan Madden, a spokesman for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says, “It takes real effort to maintain compliance with these rules, but what we hear from athletes all the time is that it’s a burden they are willing to bear in order to compete clean.”)

So how much faster do these banned substances actually make a runner? Joyner estimates that a male sprinter can gain one meter over a 100-meter race, or roughly a tenth of a second. (Because women have lower levels of testosterone in their bodies, they actually stand to benefit more from its use.) Conte puts the gain for men at more like two meters, or roughly two tenths of a second. That is, if Bolt had chosen to dope when he ran his world record, he might have been able to finish well under 9.50 seconds. At this year’s Olympic 100-meter final, the first six runners all finished within .15 seconds of one another. All eight finishers were within .25 seconds, the same amount Bailey the bobsledder finished behind Bolt in 2012, or very nearly the amount of time that Conte estimates a sprinter can gain from doping.

“It’s the difference between first and last,” Conte says. Or the difference between becoming a multi-millionaire and training for a second career in bobsledding.

How Much Faster Could the Fastest Human on the Planet Be?