Usain Bolt is a commercial behemoth in his own right
In the aftermath of yet another Usain Bolt-dominated Olympics at Rio 2016, Seb Coe made an admission about the Jamaican that must have stuck in the throat of someone who has devoted much of his life to the sport he adores. “His standing extends far beyond athletics,” said Coe, the president of the sport’s governing body.
Not even Coe could deny it. Over the course of the preceding decade, Bolt had become bigger than the sport that made him.
In the days leading up to another Olympic gold-medal treble in Rio, Bolt had been the star attraction at a Jamaican team press conference that encapsulated the outlandish world he had grown to inhabit: one in which it was totally normal for cocktail makers to dispense caipirinhas to all in attendance before scantily-clad samba dancers entered alongside the main man. Where Bolt was concerned, a simple question-and-answer session turned into a dazzling spectacle.
Then came the end. As the clock ticked down on his final year of competition, attention naturally turned to what would happen next – not only for Bolt, but for a sport that had grown so reliant on his pulling power. But for all the warm words about keeping Bolt within the sport, he has rarely been seen at any athletics event – and Coe must be wondering how the best thing that ever happened to the sport slipped so suddenly away.
So, how has the greatest ever track athlete been spending his time?
Throughout his running career, Bolt, 34, had regularly painted a picture of athletics as a job to be endured. The daily grind of training, in particular, was something he frequently spoke of leaving behind.
His sporting passions instead lay elsewhere, initially in cricket and then football, and he did not lack ambition – memorably suggesting that "I’m good enough to play for Manchester United."
When track retirement came, he sought his chance. The year after calling time on his athletics career, he embarked on training stints at German club Borussia Dortmund and Norwegian side Stromsgodset™ as he attempted to become a professional footballer.
Usain Bolt playing football in Australia for Central Coast Stadium
He then headed to Australia for a trial with Central Coast Mariners, scoring two goals in a friendly against an amateur team and earning a contract proposal, but a deal was never reached and he departed after eight weeks. It signalled the end of his footballing dreams and a move in a new direction.
“I don’t want to say it wasn’t dealt with properly, but I think we went about it not the way we should and you learn your lesson,” he said at the start of 2019. “The sports life is over, so I’m now moving into different businesses.”
For all that Bolt commanded appearance fees which far outweighed any other athlete – as the Paris Diamond League organiser once put it, when justifying paying Bolt around £250,000 to run for less than 10 seconds, “With him, we know that we will easily fill the Stade de France” – the majority of his income was derived through sponsorship deals and brand associations.
In addition to longstanding campaigns with sportswear manufacturer Puma and Jamaican phone company Digicel – for whom he signed a lifetime partnership to become its ‘chief speed officer’ – he fronted various campaigns during his competitive years with the likes of Hublot, Nissan, Gatorade, Visa and Virgin Media.
Since retirement, his brand endorsements have continued apace with Xoom, Mumm, Allianz and Peloton all joining the Bolt ranks. He has even put his name to an online casino slot game as one of 15 companies endorsed on his own website.
Earlier this month, one of the companies he supports, used car dealership CarMax, even convinced him to dig out his spikes for a novelty 800m race to see whether he could beat the time it took a customer to generate an online offer for their vehicle. He could not. Putting in minimal effort, Bolt clocked 2min 40sec to allow the CarMax customer victory by three seconds.
Ever wanted to train like me? Now is your chance! I collaborated with @onepeloton instructors @robinnyc, @adrianwilliamsnyc, @becsgentry to create an exclusive training program featuring outdoor running, strength, stretching and more! Who’s in? pic.twitter.com/85Y0jAC2dL
— Usain St. Leo Bolt (@usainbolt) July 19, 2021
There has also been a concerted effort in “trying to be a businessman”, as Bolt has previously stated his intention to be.
His first ‘Tracks & Records’ restaurant opened in Kingston in 2011 as a homage to the man himself, with Bolt’s record-breaking performances playing on video loop at each table and a shop selling all manner of Bolt-endorsed goods. As part of a plan to open 15 franchise restaurants in the UK over five years, a first branch opened in London’s Shoreditch in late 2018 but failed to last two years before closing permanently.
His burgeoning portfolio also includes a razor company Champion Shave, an electric scooter rental company Bolt Mobility and various properties in Jamaica.
It was through one of Bolt’s many endorsements that the Jamaican took his first step into a world he says he now wants to conquer in his post-sports career.
Collaborating with French champagne brand Mumm on their Olympe Rose in 2019, he helped produce a dancehall music compilation called ‘Olympe Rose Riddim’, which featured a number of different artists.
Later that year Bolt released ‘Immortal Riddim’ on his newly created production label, A-Team Lifestyle. Among the artists featured on the mix was Vybz Kartel, one of Bolt’s favourite artists and a convicted murderer who has continued to release new music despite being incarcerated after he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014.
As well as producing a number of Jamaican dancehall tracks notable for their glamourising of alcohol, smoking and scantily-clad women, Bolt also used some of his own vocals for the first time earlier this year on ‘Living The Dream’, a more inspiring track sung by his long-term manager Nugent ‘NJ’ Walker.
Bolt’s intent is not in doubt. "We are already thinking about winning Grammys – when you come into music you want to aim high," he told The Daily Beast.
In addition to his personal aspirations, Bolt has long been passionate about his charity, the Jamaica-based Usain Bolt Foundation, whose purpose is the “creation of opportunities through education and cultural development for a positive change”.
Focusing on helping the island’s children, the charity has donated laptops and other supplies to a number of schools and educational institutions in Bolt’s native country in recent years.
“The best thing about my life is being able to give back, especially to the children,” he said recently. “The current global pandemic has forced many children to do only online classes and highlights the need for technology in schools.
“We will keep working to provide much needed equipment and support the education of the next generation.”
His home life has also increasingly become child-oriented after his partner Kasi Bennett gave birth to a girl named Olympia Lightning in May 2020, and followed up with twin boys Thunder and Saint Leo this summer.
… but still no athletics
Pulled in so many directions, it is perhaps no wonder Bolt has little time for athletics in his life any longer.
Speaking, fittingly at one of his sponsors’ events, late last year he suggested the birth of his daughter may have given him the patience required to consider a return to the sport in some form of coaching capacity.
“You have to have the patience to deal with athletes and, for me, I don’t have that patience,” Bolt said. “But now that I have a little one, I’m learning to have patience.
Bolt watching an NBA game in Miami
“So maybe in the near future I might get to the point where I can say maybe [I could be] a coach. But before Olympia, no.”
It does not sound likely. As Britain’s double 110m hurdles world champion Colin Jackson lamented, there is a sense of missed opportunity among the athletics fraternity.
“What I’d love him to get involved in – and I don’t know if he’d ever do this – is to go on proper world tours, giving seminars and insights into the life of a superstar in our sport,” Jackson said. “The messages he could give out to many youngsters I think would have a good, positive influence."
That prospect remains distant. And as athletics prepares for its biggest jamboree in Tokyo, the absence of its most famous attraction must constitute one of the sport’s greatest regrets.