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Usain Bolt and steroids

I’m guilty of the Original Sin of the Internet: mistaking truthiness for truth.

A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on.Abraham LincolnShakespeareWinston ChurchillMark Twain

TL;DR: the Internet is full of myth, truth is buried in truthiness, objective reality may itself be a convenient fiction, we are all lost souls wandering in a desert of fabulation and mystery, but Usain Bolt’s coach is not a steroid pusher. Also, how do you decide which links to share?

Yesterday I tweeted a link which wasn’t true, about Usain Bolt and steroids. This shouldn’t be earth-shattering news, that a factual basis isn’t a prerequisite for virality, but I wanted to deconstruct my mistake to learn from it.

Most of the replies I got to the tweet were of the “ugh, how depressing” variety, because it played to the sense that this man’s abnormal accomplishments were unnatural. However, I was contacted by David Epstein of Sports Illustrated after an umptyzillion people had retweeted the link:

When asked, David was kind enough to provide a citation to an NBC story: Linking of Usain Bolt to Admitted Steroid Dealer Completely False.

(Note that the 4:1 testosterone ratios, the doping cycle, and other background on performance enhancing drugs in the original article are true; it’s the specific claim about Bolt’s coach that’s fiction)

I’m guilty of the Original Sin of the Internet: mistaking truthiness for truth.

A greater sin, however, would be failing to learn from mistakes. So, what did I do, how can I do better next time, and how will I make it right?

I did try to falsify the story. I checked the site and “MuscleWeek” sounded like a magazine for dopers gym rats who know about steroids. The design didn’t reek of amateur hour. The story had the specific numbers and citations that imply someone has done their work, rather than simply making allegations. My Google search for Usain Bolt steroids turned up the Muscle Week story but no rebuttal. I hunted for Usain Bolt steroids refutation, with no links to a source for “we investigated this and it was rubbish.” I even tried Usain Bolt steroids snopes in the hopes my favourite detruthiness site had nailed it. Nada.

However, I made at least two mistakes.

First, source credibility has to rely on more than the URL. I know that anyone can register a domain and whip up a design that looks credible. I should have looked for extrinsic validation of that source’s reliability.

Second, I’m outside my field of expertise. I naturally find it hard to judge the credibility of a source, and the specificity of claims are an unreliable proxy for the quality of those claims. I should ask someone with experience in that field before I pass it on. (Although in this case I didn’t trust that my friends in high performance sport would be able to talk honestly about doping.) Were I a real journalist, I would have called the source (the Bolt camp) to give them an opportunity to falsify the claims in case (as happened) the original allegations were a pile of hooey.

As for how to make it right? I’ve written this article, which will lend O’Reilly Radar’s Google weight to the NBC refutation of the coach claim. And I’ll reply with a correction to people who retweeted the link from me, to undo the direct damage.

The real lesson is, though, that I periodically need to renew my healthy skepticism for everything I see. Most of what you read in reputable publications is of questionable value, most of what you see shared online isn’t from reputable publications, and the things that make us want to believe something is true are not themselves signals of truth. In other words, Stephen Colbert was right.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/FQA7UF2PV2XPYUOPMQVT6O3JMU Ernle

    Accidental misinformation is so last century. Andrew Breitbart, Mike Daisey, Jonah Lehrer et al have raised/lowered the bar. No big deal @gnat.

  • http://stop.zona-m.net Marco Fioretti

    another thing that remains true is that it is statistically impressive, so to speak, that a relatively small group of people, all in one place, that is Jamaica, has produced so many top sprinters, all at the same moment. It does NOT necessarily says “doping”. They may have just invented a super-efficient doping-free training method that they still keep secret. Or a kryptonite asteroid fell in their water ten years ago but nobody noticed.

    Apart from this, the Reddit discussion about the Muscleweek page had very soon debunked the “Heredia is Bolt’s coach” point, and was linked in the Muscleweek comments

    • Usingh30

      Jamaicans doesn’t need drugs to be the best sprinter…michael Johnson went to Jamaican and learn that Jamaican kids start track & field very young, 5 years old..track and field is our national sports..only Americans need drugs to win most sports they should be a shame of themselves…!!!!!!

      • http://stop.zona-m.net Marco Fioretti

        “Jamaicans doesn’t need drugs to be the best sprinter…track and field is our national sports”

        OK. So? Soccer is Italy’s national sport, but we aren’t always winners in every competition. How do your assertions contrast with what I wrote? Even if track is national sport etc, the almost sudden big _improvement_ remains, as I said, statistically impressive. And I already wrote that this does not necessarily means “drugs”, only that it is likely that something, even 100% legal, licit, etc… quickly changed.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_B3QYUNZGEYP2VOUPL7PSCXWVP4 ExitTwo

          You seem to imply very strongly that the reason is drugs, by coming up with two alternatives, one of which you discount and one which is completely ridiculous.

          While I’m pretty sure doping use is very common in many sports, there’s a difference between pointing that out, and actually accusing individual sportsmen or -women. The presumption of innocence still holds, even in top sports, so it would be nice if people refrained from outright slandering athletes simply because their performance is really good.

          • http://stop.zona-m.net Marco Fioretti

            This post is specifically about Usain Bolt. Why are you surprised if anybody accuses, defends, or simply comments, the specific individual this post is about, or his close colleagues?

            With respect to what I’d be “strongly implying”: as far as I understand, and if I’m wrong here do correct me please, there has been a quick and serious improvement, in recent years, of the average performance of the whole Jamaican athletics team, with Bolt only being the poster child. Is this not correct? If not, just ignore what follows.

            If this is true, I do not imply, but confirm, what follows: this seems to me too statistically unlikely to accept it as pure chance or even pure commitment from all those athletes.

            There must be a specific reason why there was such a big average improvement in such a short time. One, of course, would be using drugs better than anybody else in the sector. Another may be equally steep improvements in average quality of food and water in Jamaica in the last decades. Another one is that the team invented some revolutionary, still secret training method. Another one… you continue.

            There are many possible reasons. Drugs is only the one that, unsurprisingly, first comes to mind, but I am not locked into it in any way. I’m just telling that there must be a reason, period.

        • Asitis

          FYI, Usain Bolt doesn’t win in every competition. Write about something that you know about. Quickly changed? Go read about Jamaica track and field history.
          It doesn’t matter what you say its clear what your intentions are and that you are biased against the Jamaican track and field team. The Jamaicans have finally caught up with the Americans as it relates to track and field. If they are on anything then the Americans are on the same. Everybody thinks they are drug testing experts and that they are way ahead of the authorities assigned for such task. Other athletes are just as impressive and nobody talks about them. As a freelance writer I say if you are going to write anything about sports stick to soccer. LOL.

          • http://stop.zona-m.net Marco Fioretti

            From these sentences of yours, it seems quite likely that you have NOT read my other reply. Please do it. Anyway:

            “it’s clear what your intentions are and that you are biased against the Jamaican track and field team”.

            Right. The Jamaican track and field team occupies all of my brain. There is nothing else in my life worth thinking about. I am on a holy mission to destroy its reputation and that of Jamaica as a whole. So that Italy can conquer it bwahahaha.

            OK, let’s get serious, please. First, I have NO bad feeling, suspect or prejudice whatsoever against Jamaica and all its citizens. Also, I have never said that other athletes are all pure and clean. Third, the complete truth is that I really don’t care enough about the Jamaican team, or more exactly about athletics in general, to spend more energies and time on this.

            Fourth and final, your invitation “As a freelance writer I say if you are going to write anything about sports stick to soccer” is simply ridiculous and not really mature.

            What is written on my Disqus profile, that is what I do for a living, does not mean that my comments on other topics on ANY disqus-enabled site are real, official articles, editorials or anything of the sort. Here, I am a reader and commenter as anybody else.

            To conclude: I DO remain sincerely, but just MODERATELY curious to understand IF there really was such a big & quick improvement in the overall performances of Jamaican athletes to be unusual, and if yes, WHY.

            That is all there is to it. No conspirations, bad will etc… just a bit of curiosity. If anybody has some concrete, calm contribution on this, thanks in advance. Otherwise, please just ignore me.

            I have thousands of things more important to do than talk bad of Jamaicans, or explaining again that I am not talking bad of Jamaicans.

  • Usingh30

    Only Americans are such fucking haters….only for themselves, evils shits!!!!!! If none of u American haters doesn’t know, Jamaicans start track and field at a very young age, 5 years old!!! Get ur facts before u judge ppl haters

    • Usha30

      Usain Bolt won his first gold medal age 15 and run 100m age 12 and won, Americans kids are slow!!!! Enough said

  • Jim

    Unfortunately, given the associative architecture of the human brain, the title of your post further reinforces the point you are debunking. :)

  • Georgeflash

    Jamaicans have had a rich sprint tradition dating back to the 1940′s. The fact that you think it is a sudden ascendancy is more about your ignorance than anything else. Ever Heard of Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey, Juliet Cuthberth, Grace Jackson, Arthur Wint, Herb Mckenley (former world record holder at 400M), George Rhoden etc ???

    Bolt is a once in a lifetime athlete. Period.

    Jamaican sprinting is a favorite past time. We have had some of the best high school athletes in the world but they used to go to the US and get burned out and badlu used in the collegiate system. The new crop of Jamaican sprinters, starting with Asafa Powell decided to spurn US scholarships to stay home and train. What you see now are the fruits of that system. They train in two camps. Both located in Kingston Jamaica on grass tracks and use the national stadium in Kingston for prepping for meets. They can be easily found year round there. I go and watch the training when I have the time.

  • Keeno Simms

    Actually you shouldn’t beat yourself up to much; they’re doping. The Jamaican program is know for drug cheats….We have individuals here referring to the the various Jamaican sprinting greats; but if you go back & research factual news reports on youtube, or CNN videos, each one of those sprinters where caught doping at various points in their career. Yohan Blake was caught 2 years ago…and only banned for three months by the JOC…what a joke…..actually all members of the Jamaican 4X100 meter relay team; with the exception of Bolt, have been caught doping….Go figure; and they say its the yam and cassava!!! What a joke!

    • Jamaican Track Fan

      @Keeno Simms. YOU SIR ARE A BARE-FACED LIAR. Yohan Blake tested positive for a stimulant that was not on WADAs banned list. Jamaica’s Anti Doping Agency could have cleared him as any other country especially the USA would – but they went ahead and banned him for three months and removed him from the 2009 World Championships team.
      Please disregard this lying Keeno Sims dude – No member of Jamaica’s relay team (Michael Frater Nesta Carter Usain Bolt Asafa Powell Yohan Blake) has ever tested positive for steroids – NONE – and thats a fact you all have google it should be easy to find out.

    • Stephenjohnmiller

      4 tenths of a second removed. From 10.06 to 9.76 in less than a year. And there is no reason to be suspiscious… Hmmm.

    • Stephen197764032@aol.com

      4 tenths of a second removed. From 10.06 to 9.76 in less than a year. And there is no reason to be suspiscious… Hmmm.

    • Mystery

      Shut your face….you are just a jealous American loser…bring proof of any cheating by Jamaican athletes ……Carl Lewis and Justin Gatlin, Florence Joyner Griffiths, Marion Jones and many more Americans were cheaters. Americans have nomoral authority to call athletes from any country cheats….

  • Keeno Simms

    test

  • Mystery

    Why are you trying to tarnish Usain’s reputation? Couldit be because you are jealous of his accomplishments? You could have used any one of 1 million lies but you chose to make up a story against a black man from a small Caribbean island…You cannot disguise your racist views.

  • Jason

    The MuscleWeek story was accurate and a simple denial from Usain Bolt’s spokesperson is about as reliable as a denial from Marion Jones. If a simple denial is all you need to ‘debunk’ a story, why does the media bother insist on calling Barry Bonds a juicer? I’m fairly certain that Barry Bonds’ spokesperson has issued several denials.