Usain Bolt entered the 2008 Summer Olympics as somewhat of a curiosity. Yes, he had recently set the world record in the 100-meter dash, but few people outside the track and field world knew much about the 6-foot-5 Jamaican. He had excelled at the 200-meter distance, but was relatively new to the 100-meter event. His only sponsors before Beijing were Puma, which signed Bolt to a small deal in 2003, and Digicel, a Jamaican mobile phone company.
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Three gold medals and three world records later, Bolt left Beijing as one of the most famous athletes on the planet. He set records in the 100 and 200, becoming the first man to capture Olympic gold in both events since Carl Lewis in 1984. He was part of the 4×100 meter Jamaican relay team that shattered the world record on the way to another gold. Life has never been the same for the world’s fastest man.
As Bolt’s fame soared, his paycheck took off as well. Bolt earned an estimated $20.3 million over the last 12-months from prize money, bonuses, appearance fees and sponsors. He ranks No. 63 among the world’s highest-paid athletes. Bolt has a ways to go to challenge LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in terms of earnings, but his income is more than 20 times what other elite sprinters typically make in a year and more than any other athlete in the history of track and field.
Bolt inked endorsement deals with Gatorade, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Virgin Media after Beijing. Visa signed him to an agreement and splashed Bolt’s image on billboards across Europe, where track and field remains a popular sport. Visa is in position to use Bolt in ads during London as an official sponsor of the Olympic Games.
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Soul Electronics signed a deal with Bolt this year and he will develop his own line of headphones for the company. He added a multimillion dollar pact in June with Nissan Motor, which plans to use Bolt in a global ad campaign. He released his autobiography, “9:58: Being the World’s Fastest Man,” in 2010, and another book is in the works for after London.
Bolt’s biggest paycheck comes courtesy of Puma, where he is the global face of the German sportswear company. Puma re-signed Bolt in 2010 to a deal worth $9 million annually. It is an astronomical sum for a track athlete and on par with what only a handful of the most marketable basketball, soccer and tennis stars receive from shoe and apparel contracts. In contrast, a massive Nike deal for a football or baseball player is $1 million.
Prize money in track and field is relatively paltry. Athletes compete each year in the Samsung Diamond League, which is made up of 14 events around the world. Winners of individual races receive $10,000 with the year-end winner earning an additional $40,000. First place in the biennial World Championships is worth $60,000 and world records carry bonuses of $100,000 in that event. Bolt typically competes in 7 to 9 Diamond League events and earns additional sponsor bonuses based on his performances.
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While prize money is small, Bolt’s ultimate running payday is often huge thanks to appearance fees. His fee starts at $200,000 and can reach $350,000 for a big meet. Bolt commands the huge sums because he guarantees a sellout when competing.
“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,” says Paul Doyle, a veteran track and field agent, in a Bolt story published last week in Sports Illustrated.
His appearance at the Penn Relays in 2010 resulted in the highest single day attendance (54,310) in the event’s 118-year history. Regarding the crowd’s reaction when Bolt started warming up, U.S. sprinter Mike Barber said, “It was so loud, I thought, ‘Is the President here?’”
Bolt can command these massive sums of money because he has transcended the world of track and field the way Tiger Woods did in golf during his peak and Michael Jordan did in basketball.
The 100-meter final was the hottest ticket going into the Olympics. London 2012 organizers received more than one million requests for tickets for the event with prices set at $1,130, which is more than any other event. Bolt faced stiff competition from countryman Yohan Blake, who is the current 100-meter world champion after Bolt was disqualified from the race last year for a false start. Blake also beat Bolt at the Jamaican Olympic trials.
Bolt held off Blake and the field Sunday night to capture the gold in an Olympic record 9.63 seconds. He joins Carl Lewis as the only men to win consecutive gold medals in the 100-meter event. Maintaining his role as the world’s fastest man will allow Bolt to continue to command huge premiums in regards to his race appearance fees and endorsement contracts.