My Sportsman: Usain Bolt
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by a former Sportsman recipient.
Being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1973 remains one of the most significant and satisfying honors of my career. It was especially gratifying to me as a non-American competing in a sport that isn't exactly on the mainstream menu in the States. (That year, I also shared ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year award -- with O.J. Simpson. I was told we edged out Secretariat.) That was the final season of my career, and I took the award as recognition not only of my accomplishments on the track that year -- five Grand Prix victories and a third World Championship -- but also of my ongoing efforts in promoting professionalism and safety in motor racing, something that transcended my particular world of Formula One. And you know, to this day, 40 years after I last drove a car in anger, I am still recognized everywhere I go in America, though perhaps that also has a lot to do with my work on Wild World -- and the Scottish accent.
At any rate, in that same spirit, when considering my candidates for this year's Sportsman I found myself thinking globally. Certainly my latest successor as Formula One champion, Sebastian Vettel of Germany, is a worthy candidate. Competing in 19 races, across five continents, the supremely talented 26-year-old took his fourth-straight title, while tying all-time F1 records with 13 victories in the season, and nine in a row. Still modern-day Grand Prix racing is, more so than ever, a matter of man and machine, and there's no doubt that Vettel, with Red Bull Racing, benefited from having the best car and the best team on the circuit. That's not to downplay his accomplishments, but in the end I am going to choose an athlete whose performances were purely individual, purely the result of the human factor -- and one who was pretty fast in his own right. The always-amazing Usain Bolt is my choice for 2013 Sportsman of the Year. The Bolt is The Man.
By his own unmatched standards, Bolt did not have his best year in 2013. He actually lost a race, and failed to break any of his own world records. What the great Jamaican did do, though, at age 27, was to continue to compete at a level few other sprinters have even approached, winning the 100- and 200-meters and anchoring his nation to victory in the 400-meter relay at the world championships in Moscow, becoming the most decorated athlete in the history of the meet. All this in a "down year," having come off his magnificent performance at the London Games in 2012.
Every champion will tell you that winning once is one thing, but that maintaining that level of excellence is a far greater challenge. The increasing pressure, the ongoing sacrifices -- as well as the acclaim and all the good things that come with it -- all conspire to make it harder to keep doing everything that it takes to excel. Many people get spoiled by success. But Bolt, even though he clearly enjoys himself, has continued to do all the things that made him great in the first place. And he has done it with great style and aplomb. For him, it's not just the feet and the legs -- it's the head and the heart too. Bolt excites everyone who sees him, in the same way that Muhammad Ali did. Bolt has been adopted by people of every nation and, to a great extent, is carrying his whole sport single-handedly, not just by winning but by giving fully of himself to the crowds. To me, that is the true measure of a sportsman.
I fully expect Bolt to continue to do great things -- he has, if you will, long legs -- and not just on the track. Even while I was competing at the highest level, I struck up relationships with a number of companies that have continued long after I hung up my helmet. I would think that Bolt has the same opportunity, that any multinational corporation would be glad to have him as part of its team. The focus and energy that he brings to his sport are a currency that provide example and value in the corporate world as well.
In the meantime, I will continue to watch him run, as I did this year, with the sense that I am watching an unmatched Sportsman in action.