Fast company: how Usain Bolt built a sprinting legacy

Few athletes have redefined their sport like Usain Bolt. An 11-time world champion, eight-time Olympic gold medallist, holder of multiple world records: for a full decade, the Jamaican sprint king dominated track and field, becoming his sport’s most recognisable and marketable presence in the process.

Fast company: how Usain Bolt built a sprinting legacy

Despite hanging up his spikes at the end of a glittering career after the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, where he finished a disappointing third in the 100m final before pulling up injured on the final leg of the 4x100m relay, Usain Bolt’s star burns as bright as ever. His larger-than-life personality is such that his commercial appeal remains, at the age of 31, largely undiminished.

Ever since he burst on to the international scene at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the fastest sprinter in history has been a prolific endorser away from the track. Ranked by SportsPro as the world’s most marketable athlete in 2011, Bolt has served as a spokesperson for such global brands as Puma, Hublot, Nissan, Gatorade, Visa and Virgin Media, regularly appearing in marketing campaigns throughout a career in which he has amassed tens of millions of dollars in endorsement earnings. All the while he has been artfully managed by a stable, close-knit team of coaches and representatives spanning from his beloved hometown of Kingston to the British capital of London, site of three of his famous Olympic triumphs.

Endorsements have contributed the lion’s share of a personal income that has dwarfed that of all other track athletes. At the peak of his powers, Bolt was estimated to have been earning roughly 20 times more than the average sprinter whilst commanding appearance fees running to US$400,000 per meet, his presence alone enough to put bring thousands of extra spectators into the stands. Indeed, for event promoters and the IAAF, track and field’s global governing body, there can be no overstating Bolt’s impact. Almost single-handedly, he consummately – and cleanly – flew the flag for a sport so often forced to deal with deep-rooted integrity issues, helping to restore confidence among spectators and inspiring many in athletics to celebrate, rather than suspect, the extraordinary.

And yet, Bolt being Bolt, he has taken it all in his stride. Forced to shoulder excessive pressure and swirling media interest wherever he has competed, this smiling, laughing, dancing entertainer has repeatedly challenged definitions of what’s impossible – pushing boundaries, setting records, making history. He has been in a class all of his own but, for all his talents, he stands apart as more than just the biggest draw in athletics.

Bolt sporting his signature pose at a sponsor event

A global icon whose appeal transcends far beyond the boundaries of sport, Bolt has turned his attention to other pursuits. When he’s not busy carrying out commercial work, he can be found indulging his passion for soccer and music, appearing on primetime television shows, or posting avidly to his legions of followers on social media. Beyond that, an eponymous charitable foundation and a burgeoning portfolio of business interests – including a fledgling Jamaican restaurant chain, Tracks & Records – indicate he has no plans of slowing down in retirement.

Here, in an exclusive interview with SportsPro, Bolt reflects on a remarkable career, assesses his impact as a brand ambassador, and shares his thoughts on the long-term future of athletics.

How has your attitude towards your various off-track interests and commercial work changed over the years? Did it take you some time to warm to those commitments, and at what point did you begin to realise your true value as a brand ambassador?

It was really after the Olympic Games in 2008 that it took off. Prior to that I was well known in Jamaica and in athletics circles but not a household name. Going to Beijing my main partnerships were with Puma and Digicel. That changed after 2008. I knew that it was very important to form commercial partnerships that brought mutual benefit – not just to me but also to the brand. My team carefully selected brands to work with and many of those brands are still with me today. 

Beyond your records and influence on the track, how would you assess your impact on the business of athletics as a whole, and what do you think your legacy will be in that regard?

I would like to think that I helped bring excitement and interest to the sport of athletics. I heard that in one Diamond League meeting in Rome they sold 15 to 20,000 extra tickets in the years I competed there. Traditionally, track and field didn’t really compete with some other major sports for marketing dollars but I feel we broke some glass ceilings on the value of an athletics star.

Hopefully, the athletes who come after me will benefit from what I did and the way we did things. We have seen some young athletes get much bigger contracts when they turn pro compared to when I was starting out so I think I may have helped raise the bar.

Hopefully, the athletes who come after me will benefit from what I did and the way we did things

What do you make of the way track and field stars are marketed today, and what do you think the future holds in terms of the off-track opportunities and earning potential for the next generation coming through?

Track and field is a great sport with many attributes – truly global, equal representation of men and women, accessible to everyone, most important sport in the Olympic Games, etc. On the downside it is a very competitive sport. It is extremely hard to win year after year. There is new talent coming through every year. As an individual sport there are no hiding places if you have a bad day.

I would like to see more companies get involved in track and field and for the authorities to make it easier for companies to get involved. Athletes are heavily dependent on sportswear companies for money. Unlike other sports, we are not paid a salary so our earnings come from competitions and endorsements.

Of all the brands you’ve worked with and all the campaigns you’ve featured in over the course of your career, which ones stand out as the most exciting or memorable for you and why?

I have been in many great campaigns: Virgin Media always produce good ads; everything I do with Mumm and Hublot is fun; it was great to see the Nissan GTR advertising at almost every airport I flew from. I have been in Gatorade Superbowl commercials but probably one that stands out is Puma’s ‘Stick Stick Stick’ campaign in 2004. It was one of my first TV commercials and a lot of fun to make. 

Hublot is one of the many brand endor​sements for Jamaican star

What advice would you give to marketers whose business is to attach their brands to sports stars like yourself? Do you believe there is enough creativity and originality in the world of sports marketing?

I have been involved in some very creative and original campaigns so my experience has been good.

You’ve been with PACE Sports Management since you were 16 and have had a stable backroom team around you throughout your entire career. How important has that secure set-up and those lasting relationships been in helping to maximise your potential on and off the track?

For me, it is very important to have a professional team working for me and people that I like working with me. My agent Ricky [Simms] and manager NJ [Nugent Walker] work very closely together to help me make the right decisions about my career and brand. I was fortunate to have a great coach, Glen Mills, who taught me so much both on and off the track.

I know NJ, Ricky, Marion [Stenninger] and the other PACE staff have very high standards and work very hard to help the athletes. What I like is that they have treated me the same since I was 16 years old and have my back in the good days and bad days. 

When did you become conscious of the responsibility that was being placed on you as the standard-bearer for your sport.

I hear this a lot in press conferences but for me I just continue to be myself and act in the way my parents brought me up. 

Bolt has served as a spokesperson for the sport and numerous associated brands

Do you think that was appropriate, on reflection? What can athletics do to create interest in other athletes and events across the sport, rather than investing in saviours?

I think everyone is now looking for the next Usain Bolt. What I always say is to let people be themselves and instead of looking for the next Usain Bolt talk about the current Wade Van Niekirk or Elaine Thompson or whoever is at the top.

What did it mean to you to be representing Jamaica on the world stage? Do you feel like sprinters have a particular obligation to be ambassadors there?

I love Jamaica and am proud to represent Jamaica on the world stage. I travel to a lot of countries who don’t know much about Jamaica apart from me and Bob Marley. It is always great to meet Jamaicans abroad and see smiles on their faces. I love living in Jamaica and try to give back to my country as much as I can.

How would you change the format of athletics meetings to attract more fans and adapt to the modern era? What are some of the things that your fellow athletes would like to experience in that regard?

I was involved with Nitro Athletics in Australia last year, which was a new exciting form of track and field. It was a huge success and I see more meets are trying to take elements of what we did there. The fans come to the stadium or tune into TV to watch us entertain them. Although performance comes first, we still need to remember we are also entertainers.   

To many, Bolt became the face of track and field during his glittering career

At various points in your career, you were held up as a champion for clean athletes against those found guilty of doping – most notably Justin Gatlin. Did that bring any added pressure?

Athletics has been through some tough times but throughout my career I competed clean and showed people what can be done with talent and hard work. I would not say this brought any pressure. I think I always had the fan support behind me to keep doing what I was doing.

What responsibility do athletes have to protect the integrity of the sport? What more could the authorities be doing to support them?

The job of the authorities is to set rules, apply the rules consistently and educate athletes in what is right and wrong. Athletes themselves must take responsibility to do their best and when they retire look back and be proud of their careers and what they contributed to the sport.

Do you regret carrying on to London 2017 rather than retiring after Rio? What are your plans for retirement, and what will you miss most about competing?

I don’t have any regrets. After Rio 2016 I got lots of messages from fans who wanted to see me compete in 2017. It was really for them that I continued. The thing I miss most about not competing is the thrill of walking into a full stadium and hearing the noise of the crowd before a race. I thought once I retired I would have more time but I seem to be even busier now. I have still all my commercial work and appearances, my business interests, the Usain Bolt Foundation and I have been playing a lot of football to see where I can get to in that sport.