Congratulations to Aaron Braun and Molly Huddle for their victories in the inaugural .US National Road Racing Championships in Alexandria, Virginia. Both won $20,000 out of the $100,000 prize purse, one of the largest non-marathon paydays in road racing. At the same time down in Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt was complaining how track’s inability to get beyond its drug scandals is causing him a loss in sponsorship opportunities. With money emerging as the issue of the day I was reminded of a conversation I had Friday night in La Jolla, California with U.S. marathoner Meb Keflezighi’s agent/brother Merhawi and former Mesa Community College coach and frequent Team USA manager Manny Batista.
We were attending “A Night In La Jolla”, the first annual charity event of the MEB Foundation, a glitzy affair that attracted many of the area’s beautiful people – and a few runner types, too. Meb had just returned from an eight-day trip to Athens with his wife Yordanos to attend the Athens Marathon. It was his first visit to the Greek capital since his silver medal performance in the 2004 Olympic Marathon.
While perusing the blind raffle items up for bid, and checking out the San Diego glitterati’s definition of “dressy”, the suggested dress code for the evening, Hawi, Manny and I got around to playing the What If game, discussing the huge payday difference between track, road running and the mainstream American sports.
We wondered what if Usain Bolt had been born, say, in Louisville, Kentucky rather than Sherwood Content, Jamaica? What impact would the presence of a generational talent like Bolt have had on the profile of track & field in the 2000s if he’d have been an American?
First we did our due diligence and considered the state of the sport during the reigns of some other of track’s leading lights. Carl Lewis was certainly a once-a-generation athlete in the 1980s. But King Carl didn’t have Bolt’s playful personality. In fact, he tended to turn off fans rather than attract them. Plus, track was still in the final stages of its turn in the mainstream of American sporting consciousness in the 1980s, especially with the 1984 Olympic Games being staged in Los Angeles.
In the 1990s as track began its slide into the backwaters of public consciousness, Michael Johnson was a fabulous record breaker, we concurred, but he didn’t transcend the sport. And though the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, those Games were most remembered for their flea market atmosphere and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
So what about Bolt today? It’s an intriguing question; he is by far the biggest star in track since Carl Lewis. But our consensus was that, in fact, nothing would be different with track and field today if Usain Bolt had grown up in America. Because if he had, he never would have ended up as a professional track athlete in the first place. Instead, though today he is a huge soccer fan, the odds are he would have most likely turned his talents toward a career in American pro football, perhaps ending up at the wide receiver position like Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, of the Detroit Lions.
Both Bolt and Johnson are rare combinations of size and speed. Calvin Johnson has run the 40-yard dash in 4.35, and the 100 meters in 10.23 seconds. Considering their current physical attributes, Bolt would surely have buffed up by twenty pounds or so if he’d taken up the gridiron game.
Date of birth: 29 September 1985 (age 28)
Height: 6′ 5″ (1.95 m)
Weight: 236 lbs. (107 kg)
Date of birth: 21 August 1986 (age 27)
Height: 6′ 5″ (1.95 m)
Weight: 207 lbs (94 kg)
They have something else in common. On March 14, 2012 Calvin Johnson signed an eight-year, $132 million contract extension with the Lions, at the time the 25th largest sports contract ever, averaging $16,500,000 per season, and $1,031,250 per game.
On September 24, 2013 the six-time Olympic gold medalist Bolt signed a new three-year contract with footwear sponsor Puma for a reported $10 million per year, with another $10 million due if he competes in 2017 when London hosts the world championships. His current deal with Puma paid him approximately $9 million per year and expires at the end of 2013.
Bolt also commands race appearance fees in the $250,000 — $300,000 range per race. In 2013 he competed in eleven 100-meter races including three at the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Moscow. While not unpaid, the World Championships are something of a freebee by Bolt standards (winners received $60,000 at the World Champs). He also ran five 200s, including three in Moscow, two 400s (and a 4 X 400) back home in Jamaica as early season training, and two 4 X 100 relays, including the gold medal win in Moscow.
Perhaps not all his open races garner the full $300,000 appearance fee, but saying they do, that’s eleven times $300K, or another $3,300,000 in earnings, plus auto, wrist watch, and other sponsorships. Last year Sports Illustrated listed Bolt as the seventh highest paid Olympian in London at $20.2 million. Tennis star Roger Federer headed the list at $54.3 million.
Highest Paid 2012 Olympians:
2. LeBron James ($53 million) basketball
3. Kobe Bryant ($52.3 million) basketball
5. Kevin Durant ($25.5 million) basketball
6. Carmelo Anthony ($22.9 million) basketball
9. Chris Paul ($19.2 million) basketball
10. Li Na ($18.4 million) tennis
Problem is, Bolt is the lone track athlete listed in the company of tennis, golf, basketball, baseball and football players. So to follow up with the What If game, What If track were still one of the mainstream American sports, as it had been through much of the first two-thirds of the 20th century? How many potentially great track and field athletes are currently performing in the NBA and NFL?
Remember that both Terry Bradshaw, four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and Russ Francis, former All-Pro tight-end for the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers, were high school javelin record holders. Bradshaw attended Shreveport, Louisiana’s Woodlawn High School where he set a national record at 245 feet (74.68 m). Francis attended Pleasant Hill High School in Oregon where he broke the national high school javelin record in 1971 at 259 feet, 9 inches. And in what is recognized as the ultimate high school record, former S.F. 49’er Michael Carter still holds the all-time high school record n the Shot Put at 81′ 3 1/2″ (24.78 meters). Carter set this mark at the 1979 Golden West Invitational (Sacramento, CA) while competing for Jefferson High School of Dallas, Texas. No high school athlete has come within four feet of this record since.
And we could just imagine the high and long jump talent that resides in the NBA. Not saying that Bolt would automatically have made it as an American football player. For every Bullet Bob Hayes, the 1964 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, there are many more Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiahs, the wondrous 110-meter high hurdler who was only a so-so wide receiver for the S.F. 49ers.
So it was our conclusion that if Mr. Bolt had been born in America the lure of mainstream sports would have influenced his career path in a similar fashion. He might well have dabbled in track, but sooner or later he would have moved on to the bigger leagues of mainstream sport. One thing that might be the same, though, would be that pose and nickname. Lightning Bolt, indeed. What say you?