Usain Bolt in the A-League. It’s a fascinating prospect. An announcement from the Central Coast Mariners that the eight-time Olympic gold medallist would be joining the club on trial for an indefinite period of time sparked a global frenzy this week.
Bolt, after all, has never played a professional football match in his life, and it must be stressed – this is a trial. At this point, he is still not a contracted Mariners player and there is every chance he never will be. However, there is great potential for this to help further embed the club in the community, allowing young potential Mariners fans to see one of the world’s most famous and recognisable athletes donning a Mariners shirt. A training shirt, but a Mariners shirt nevertheless.
But now the door is ajar for Bolt to become a professional footballer. In fact, it is more than ajar. Labelling the trial period as “indefinite” is the first hint dropped by the Mariners that the Jamaican will be given every opportunity – and then some – to prove his worth.
On one hand, it is entirely understandable. The marketing upside of Bolt is enormous. In an interview with SEN’s Andy Maher, Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp spoke about the commercial interest in the deal. “We’ve been selling a lot of memberships, [and] had a lot of inquiries about how to buy match tickets,” he said. “And of course, commercial sponsors and partners are calling in.”
This is the reason why Bolt, at 31 years of age, is being given ample time to develop into a professional footballer. In a press conference after the announcement of the deal, Mielekamp was asked to justify the move to critics who would argue it was a gimmick. “You know we are a small club, you know that we need to grow,” he said. “If this is one of the opportunities for the Central Coast Mariners to significantly grow for the long-term, then that’s an opportunity that no one can deny us.”
The gimmick tag will be hard to shake. Bolt’s list of achievements on a football field are limited to training spells with Borussia Dortmund and Mamelodi Sundowns, an appearance in a Soccer Aid charity match, and a 20-minute cameo for Norwegian side Strømsgodset. That cameo came in a friendly match against a Norwegian Under-19 side, in which Bolt gave the ball away on numerous occasions and missed an excellent chance to equalise as his team lost 1-0.
Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp speaks during Wednesday’s press conference. Photograph: Ashley Feder/Getty Images
There is also the question of fitness. The type of fitness needed to compete aerobically over the course of a 90-minute football match is entirely different to that of a sub-10 second sprint. After Bolt’s training stint with Dortmund, then-manager Peter Stöger noted that the ex-sprinter will need to work hard to prepare his body for the rigours of professional football. “The physique he needs for his other sport is completely different from what he needs for football,” Stöger said after the trial in March.
With so many underlying difficulties, without yet even discussing his potential for real development at 31, doubts remain. Earlier this week, Mielekamp was unwilling or unable to discuss the financial parameters of the deal. These parameters, if met by the club, have the potential to be substantial; Mielekamp confirmed Bolt will be living on the Central Coast, he will have to fly into the country, and he will have to be transported to and from training. If these costs are being met by the club, it would contradict Mielekamp’s statement that the club wants “to make sure that this is treated just like anyone else in the same aspect”.
Regardless, he will not be treated like anyone else because he is not anyone else. He is Usain Bolt: the world’s fastest man. In an interview with AAP, Mariners coach Mike Mulvey said that he has not watched footage of the Jamaican training with other clubs and that he will be allowed to “start from scratch”. Other players are not given the chance to start from scratch, other players are not given indefinite trial periods, other players are not given the chance to become professionals at 31.
“His training program will be structured to see if he can reach a level of playing that earns him a professional contract,” Mielekamp said. “This may take three weeks, this may take three months, this may take six months, it may take longer, who knows? Only time will tell.”
In less than two weeks, Bolt will be 32. The potential commercial and marketing benefits are real and, when the time comes to measure the success of the Bolt Show in Australia, that will have to be carefully weighed up against the ability of a man who is yet to kick a ball in the professional game to contribute on the pitch. It may well still be worth it.
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