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In 2010, Bolt signed a multiyear contract with Puma that is believed to be one of the richest ever for an athlete for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle event (i.e., not U.S. professionals or international soccer players), at nearly $10 million per year. The cost for signing Bolt to run a one-day meet, while a closely kept secret among promoters and subject to nondisclosure agreements, has been reported at $250,000.
Despite this astronomic fee, meets clamor for his participation. "When you have Usain Bolt, you have a sellout, you have happy sponsors, you have happy TV," says Alfons Juck, who has been promoting meets in Europe for 27 years and is currently meet manager of the Golden Spike Invitational in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, where Bolt has run in six of the last eight years, including this year. "No other name attracts interest like him. None of the other great athletes of the past—Carl Lewis, Sergey Bubka—have been like Bolt."
That reality is more than athletic. Like Juck, Patrick Magyar has been a promoter in Europe for nearly three decades and currently is director of the Weltklasse meet in Zurich. "Usain is in a special category, a cultural phenomenon," says Magyar. "He doesn't make a meet good or bad, he makes it glamorous. Bolt, he shadows all the others."
The other athletes know it. Two days before the Ostrava meet U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones tweeted, "When @usainbolt is at a race, I'm the free bread they serve b4 the meal. U don't want my autograph kid? No, I don't know where Usain is...." When Bolt arrived at Franklin Field during the 2010 Penn Relays, the crowd reaction was so wild that U.S. sprinter Miki Barber said, "Did the President just get here?"
Whether this helps the sport in general, or just Usain Bolt, is difficult to measure. With fewer meets, the economic model has changed: Athletes need sponsorship money to survive. It's possible that Bolt is so economically dominant—"The figure we hear is that Bolt takes up 80 percent of all the money in track and field," says U.S. 800-meter Olympian Nick Symmonds—that others are left to fight for his table scraps. It's also possible that Bolt's presence alone is what makes the sport viable and allows others to secure endorsement deals. From his fellow athletes, there is little resentment and, moreover, genuine affection.
"Businesswise, people come to watch Bolt," says Oliver. "We're the warmup act. But if you deliver a jaw-dropping performance, you're going to be seen, because Bolt brings that audience. Personally, he's approachable. I've chopped it up with him a few times."
While Nelson dislikes one-man marketing, he admires Bolt. "He's a great person," says Nelson. "Nothing but professional. A great ambassador for the sport."
Paul Doyle, the agent for Powell as well as for U.S. decathletes Ashton Eaton, Trey Hardee and Bryan Clay, says, "Bolt is the highest-paid athlete in the history of track and field, but he's also probably the most underpaid athlete in the history of track and field."
THE DANCING, gesticulating, comically dominating character of Usain Bolt springs from the personality of a tall, silly kid who has always preferred play to work. That persona has grown with Bolt; it has encircled his celebrity in obvious ways, and Bolt has nurtured it appropriately. Little that he does is spontaneous. His To Di World pose was planned and choreographed long before the Beijing 100. A 2 Fast 2 Furious "your-engine's-too-small" gesture sprung from practice hectoring with training partners. Last year in Deagu he watched a stadium video in which the event mascot shhh-ed the crowd before the gun, and then mimicked it before winning the gold medal in the 200 meters, cracking up as he did it. "People like that stuff," says Bolt. "People laugh. And it keeps me relaxed."
Bolt explains that his attitude quashes anxiety under pressure and helps make him so good on the biggest stage. For nearly two years after Berlin 2009 he missed that stage. In 2010 he missed the second half of the season with the recurrence of back problems that have surfaced regularly since he was a teenager, and he struggled to regain form throughout much of '11. His best 100-meter time since '09 is 9.76 seconds; his fastest 200-meter time in that span is 19.40 in winning the Daegu worlds, but he has run only nine 200 finals since Berlin.