Usain Bolt, believe it or not, is a human being. He makes mistakes. Unfortunately, in this case, the mistake in question is voicing an opinion.
Bolt is at the centre of a row after he allegedly branded the Glasgow-hosted Commonwealth Games ‘a bit shit’ in a short interview with a reporter for The Times. Bolt’s mad dash to defend himself – tweeting an angry rebuttal before attending a Jamaican women’s netball game – highlights a much bigger problem. Top-level athletes are not robots; they are not PR-perfected, sponsor-driven, mind-numbingly boring human beings. And they shouldn’t be stopped from giving an honest viewpoint on sport, or even social and political issues, for fear of being chastised by the media and scalded by their sponsors.
Bolt is, first and foremost, the fastest man who ever lived, famed for his blistering world-record runs in both the 100 and 200 metres. And there are inevitably restrictions that come with this territory. Twenty-seven-year-old Bolt is, in effect, a human billboard – Visa, Hublot, Virgin, Nissan… the list of sponsors goes on. Bolt is so indebted to his sponsors that he cannot afford to make a single misstep in front of the world’s media. He is expected to smile, run fast and then dance and wave, all of which he has done exceptionally well since he strolled to victory in the 100 metres at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
If anything, Bolt’s moment of outspoken candour was refreshing. Footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and basketball star LeBron James are all outstanding athletes in their own right, but could we honestly say they have ever said anything remotely interesting? Aside from smash-mouth boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather, those in the upper echelons of world-class sport and, not-so coincidentally, near the top of the Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list, lack any real spark. The days of Muhammad Ali making bombastic comments on American society and Arthur Ashe joining anti-Apartheid protests are long gone.
Most frustratingly of all, Bolt’s alleged remarks, made on a dreary Scottish afternoon, were hardly offensive, scandalous or even rude. One could make a strong case for them being accurate. This year’s games aside, the Commonwealth Games are notorious for their lack of star quality and passion. At what other ‘major championships’ do you see the winner of the men’s 100 metres (in this case, Jamaica’s Kemar Bailey-Cole) finishing the race and looking nonchalantly up at the scoreboard, rather than celebrating his victory like a madman?