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Bankable Bolt: The cute currency converter

— Part two

BY SONDRE COLLY-DURAND Sunday Observer writer editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 28, 2011    

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At the 13th World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, the athlete whose appearance is most anticipated is Jamaica's Usain Bolt. Sondre Colly-Durand, a Jamaican living in France, looks at Bolt's marketablility and what has made him the hottest commodity in world athletics. The Sunday Observer brings you the second in a two-part feature. The first instalment was carried last week:

BOLT'S swagger is backed up by his dashing performance — Ato Boldon, the four-time Olympic medal winner from Trinidad and Tobago (born, incidentally, to a Jamaican mother), now a CBS and NBC sports television broadcast analyst for track and field, quipped that Bolt, who had clocked a world record of 9.69 seconds, had officially taken the sport into an era of video-game times.

Bolt, a keen lover himself of Pro Evolution Soccer and Call of Duty, then went on to lower that mark to 9.58. For sure, as an announcer in Boston puts it: "This man sits on top of a six-billion-person pyramid. Everyone in the world knows how to run. This man is the fastest."

As a result, to secure the star, international meet directors have got to show him the money. Indeed, it was widely reported in the French media that Bolt commands appearance fees in excess of US$250,000. While a quarter-million is a lot — it works out to about $25,000 per second — athletics is still basketball's poor country cousin.

By the way, the popular theory is that had Bolt been American he'd probably be an NBA player, whilst a European Bolt would have been pushed into either rugby or football.

Suppositions aside, even these high fees may not be enough to land the 25-year-old athlete who opted out of the Crystal Palace Diamond League meeting last summer because of British tax rules which require foreign sports stars to pay taxes on their worldwide endorsements. For the Stockholm gala sprint to be held on July 29, superstar Bolt reportedly pocketed two million kronor (US$310,000) to put in an appearance.

The confirmation of his presence necessitated several days of negotiations with meet director Rajne Sderberg who is particularly pleased with himself because it's the second year in a row that Bolt was putting in an appearance at the tiny European nation's meet.

It's worth mentioning, too, that the hype was even more frenetic because Bolt's last appearance in Stockholm saw him taking a whipping from Tyson Gay. Sderberg believes in Bolt's bankable status. He notes that the sprinter is worth his high appearance fee and mentions in passing that the money was already earmarked in the budget. Bolt, the savvy businessman, says he wants to "make as much money out of this as possible before I retire" and he seems to be on the right track to do just that.

Meanwhile, his coach and guru Glen Mills, head coach of Bolt's Racers Track Club, who has been guiding the athlete since 2004, tries to protect his athlete from the horde. He has an understanding with Puma with which Bolt has renewed his record-setting sponsorship deal until the end of 2013. Puma can have access to Bolt as long as Coach Mills thinks that it doesn't negatively impact on his training or on his performance.

With less than 500 days to go to the 2012 Olympics in London, the jury is still out, however, on whether the celebrity lifestyle filled with running for cash, travelling, networking and public relations will affect his core activity which is running, measured in hundredths of a second, with the likes of Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Christophe Lemaitre hot on his heels.

Puma, who struck gold when they decided to back the 16-year-old with the winning personality in 2003, know that he is an asset of inestimable value. Their representatives explained that when he won three gold medals and smashed two world records in the 100m (9:58) and 200m (19:19) in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Puma offices in France erupted in euphoria, rivalled only by that which resonated in Jamaica.

As the CEO for Puma says: "His Lightning Bolt To Di World pose from the Beijing Games in 2008 is now one of the most recognisable symbols in sport." Indeed, this pose adorns every imaginable apparel sold by Puma — watch, shades, socks, T-shirts, blazers, you name it — and it is, of course, reminiscent of Nike's Air Jordan silhouette.

No wonder then that the German sportswear giant worked out a deal with Bolt that is, by far, the largest ever for a track and field athlete, positioning him as a top earner in the world of sport.

Usain himself says of the brand: "They saw potential in me and they took a chance, supporting me all the way, especially when things weren't easy for me due to injuries I suffered in my teens. We've been partners in the truest sense of the word since day one, and so it's an easy decision to re-sign with them."

Though tight-lipped on the details, the deal is said to be comparable to the US$32 million deal with football star Cristiano Ronaldo. All in all, Bolt is reported to be worth US$10 million a year in prize money, endorsements and appearance fees.

But the bankable Bolt is also using his swagger locally. His partnership with the Kingston Live Entertainment (KLE) Group has produced the Usain Bolt Tracks and Records located in Kingston. It's a trendy spot to eat, lyme and dance.

He's also got a charitable heart. Bolt worked with the Chain of Hope to launch the Usain Bolt Walkathon to assist the Bustamante Children's Hospital. And although very few people have reported about it, in 2008 he donated US$50,000 to children in a Chinese quake-hit zone. In fact, his father has been on record as worriedly expressing his observation that his son can be too philanthropic at times.

Whether it's in euros, pounds, US dollars, Jamaican dollars, kronors or yen, our resident cute, currency converter has taken track and field 'to di world' indeed.

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