Before we get to the doping – and we will, sadly but inevitably, get there – it’s worth trying to put this current moment in athletics into some sort of historical-statistical context. Take Linford Christie, the current British 100-metre record holder: since his zenith, five men representing Jamaica have surpassed his best time a total of sixty-seven times (a number that will almost certainly have risen by the time you read this). That’s not counting the Canadians Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey, both of whom were born in Jamaica – as was Christie himself. Or take the marathoner Steve Jones, a former world and current British record holder: his best time has now been bettered by forty-eight different men whose middle or last names start with ‘Kip’.
Such are the prodigious depths of Jamaican sprinting and Kenyan marathoning that Richard Moore and Ed Caesar respectively grapple with in their compelling new books. Explaining such pockets of excellence has emerged as an important area of enquiry among non-fiction writers, including Matthew Syed, Daniel Coyle, Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin, in the past decade. The common thread that runs through their books is the uplifting claim that it’s not what you think: these athletes are not born better than us, they just become that way thanks to a blend of culture, history, opportunity and luck.