Usain Bolt, The World's Fastest Man, Is Sprinting Toward Soccer

Jul 17, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 7:21 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world's greatest sprinter is taking his talents to the soccer pitch. Eight-time Olympic champion Usain Bolt hopes to become a full-time soccer player. He's set to start training with an Australian pro team next month. With more on Bolt and other crossover sport stars, we're joined by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about Bolt's plans.

GOLDMAN: Well, the plan is to train for a month and a half with the Central Coast Mariners. That's a soccer club near Sydney, part of Australia's A-League, the country's top men's league. And if he does well enough, the hope is to sign a contract and become a professional soccer player.

SHAPIRO: Is this legit, or is this really just a ploy to boost attendance?

GOLDMAN: You doubter, Ari, you doubter.

SHAPIRO: I mean, journalists are supposed to be skeptical, right?

GOLDMAN: Right, right, well, can I answer yes to both?

SHAPIRO: Sure.

GOLDMAN: Yes, it's legit in Bolt's mind. He says he's serious. He wants a new challenge in life. He was a soccer player as a kid before switching to track and field, which of course was a good choice. He's trained with teams in Germany and Norway, and officials from each team had different takes on his soccer ability. The director of football for the Norwegian team was quoted as saying, he's a good football player; otherwise we wouldn't have him training with us. The head coach for the German team, much more severe, said Bolt has a lot of work to do if he wants to be a full-time pro player.

And then, yes, the answer to your second question - this also could be an opportunity to boost attendance. The A-League in Australia puts out a good product, but attendance is still lagging. The Central Coast Mariners had the second-lowest average attendance last season. And you can pretty much guarantee there would be a Bolt bump. This guy has been a global sports icon. As an indication, a reported 1,400 fans showed up in an open training session when Bolt was trying out with the German team.

SHAPIRO: Well, you've seen him race and win at three Olympic Games. Obviously it takes more than speed to be a great soccer player, but how do you think he's going to do?

GOLDMAN: You know, he has a chance because he's a superior athlete. As far as his running skills translate, you know, it's interesting. Even though he's a sprinter, he's notorious for his slow starts. But once he gets rolling, look out. It's a very different style of running than you typically see in soccer. Soccer is a lot about bursts and slashing, cutting runs. That said, you could see Bolt on a counter-attack, running the length of the field and sprinting by everyone. It remains to be seen how skillful he is, you know, handling the ball or heading the ball. You'd think him being 6-foot-5 would help around the goal, rising up to head in a corner kick, for instance.

SHAPIRO: There have been other superstar athletes that have tried to switch sports. I'm thinking - didn't Michael Jordan at some point play baseball? What have the success rates been?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Interesting you mention that and the word success because it was not. Yeah, Michael Jordan in the early '90s went from baseball - I'm sorry - basketball to baseball and then thankfully returned to basketball.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: Among the most prominent track and field athletes, the results are mixed. You had the success of Bob Hayes and Ollie Matson. They were great sprinters. They both won Olympic medals in the sprints, and then they went on to distinguished careers in the NFL. And then you had athletes like Renaldo Nehemiah. He was a top-ranked world-ranked hurdler who tried his hand as an NFL receiver, and it didn't quite work out - not as bad an experience as Jim Hines had. Hines was an Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter, world record holder in the hundred meters, made the switch to the NFL, where he earned the nickname Oops for his lack of football skills.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: So we will see where Usain Bolt lands in this interesting history of great athletes for whom greatness in one sport, Ari, is not enough.

SHAPIRO: With some interesting history, that's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.