Usain Bolt has indicated he would like a tryout with Manchester United. I remember Tony Kornheiser saying that people always want to take the World’s Fastest Man and have him do something else.
Fans of team sports have always pondered how having truly world-class speed could be applied away from the track. The two most prominent men to successfully transition to team sports from track and field are Bob Hayes and Jim Thorpe.
Bob Hayes: Bullet Bob Hayes was a standout sprinter and receiver at Florida A&M before winning Olympic gold. After the Olympics, he went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. Having played college football, he had more of a background in his “second” sport than Bolt figures to have in his.
Jim Thorpe: Jim Thorpe earned the title of World’s Greatest Athlete when he won the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. After the Olympics, Thorpe went on to be a credible, if mediocre, Major League baseball player.
As his baseball career petered out, Thorpe became the man to put professional football on the map. Professional football was regarded by the general public with barely more credibility than professional wrestling has today. In addition to his outstanding play on the field, Thorpe put butts in seats and helped keep professional football alive.
In both baseball and football, Thorpe had starred at the defunct Carlisle Indian School. On the gridiron, Carlisle took on some of the best college teams of the era. Thorpe also famously played semi-professional baseball, which caused him to be stripped of his medals.
Both men had far more experience in their “second” sports than Bolt, who has devoted himself almost exclusively to track since childhood. This can also be attributed to the increased specialization of sports. If Jim Thorpe was born 100 years later, he would not have played all these different sports growing up and in school. He likely would’ve stuck to football unless a Major League team gave him a big enough signing bonus. Even Bo Jackson admitted the decathlon was his favorite sporting event and he gave it up. Athletes are far more specialized, which is also likely a contributing factor to the improvement in results we see in sports.
Premier League defenders would surely not relish the task of marking Bolt. At the same time, they could easily out-muscle him. Training to run all out for less than 10 seconds is inherently different than training to play 90 minutes in the fastest league in the world and running two to three miles in that span. After so long away from the game, it’s almost impossible that he has the skill with the ball and awareness required to play with Manchester United.
It’s doubtful United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson would entertain the dog and pony show of bringing Bolt in for a trial. If they did, they could throw him in some reserve matches and sell shirts all over the world with “Bolt” on the back. We know the owners could probably use the money.
Bolt’s pure speed would probably translate better to the gridiron than any other team sport. Just by the nature of the sport, his team could put him on the field only in plays and ask him to do things he is capable of. Then again, growing up playing soccer and cricket, who knows if he can catch an oblate spheroid anyway.