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Sporting Life

Reboot to football: Don't see it as a Bolt from the blue

Usain Bolt may be the fastest, most famous and featherless thing on two legs, but really he wants to be Gene Conley. The Jamaican sprinter, 30, who loves cricket and now wants to play football, is searching for versatility; the American, 86, defined it. In the 1950s, Conley won NBA titles with the Boston Celtics and a baseball World Series with the Milwaukee Braves. As he told The Los Angeles Times with Bolt-like cool, "I think I was having so much fun that it kept me going". 

Bolt is apparently going to practise with Borussia Dortmund and it sounds like a lark for an athlete for whom the track has run out of challenges. Bolt in boots makes us smile, unless you are a defender in pursuit of him. But seriously, a footballer? At this age? Impossible, we say. Of course, it's the same thing we said about a human being running 100m in 9.58 seconds. 

Impossible is not a word to use with the exceptional. Impossible is the goal. Impossible is not what Richard Gordon, head of high performance at the Singapore Sports Institute, will agree to when asked about athletes starting another sport. "It's very, very difficult," he says as he smiles down the phone line. 

Multi-sports athletes have left their stylish stud marks all over history. Search down the ages and the impossible is everywhere. Jacob Tullin Thams of Norway, for instance, won a ski-jumping Olympic gold in 1924 and a sailing silver in 1936, demonstrating clearly that in air, land and water he was in his element. 

Athletes have adapted, adjusted and astonished. They've gone from mud to mat (goalkeeper Tim Wiese tried wrestling), solid to liquid (gymnasts find diving kinder to the body) and field to ring (rugby star Sonny Bill Williams briefly turned boxer). We can't be surprised, for redefining limits is what provokes them. People tend to concentrate on  Michael Jordan's failure at baseball when the sheer audacity in believing he could do it is breathtaking. 


Usain Bolt
 competing in the
200m final at the
Rio Olympics.
 With nine
 Olympic gold
medals, the
Jamaican – who
has always
fancied his
prospects as a
footballer – will
soon be training
with Dortmund.
 PHOTO: REUTERS

Some sports have a kinship, such as cycling and speed skating - Canada's Clara Hughes has Olympic medals in both - and as Damian Farrow, professor of skill acquisition at Victoria University and the Australian Institute of Sport, says: "Physiologically they're a good fit. The energy needs are quite similar." 

Bolt will come  to football armed with a knowledge of high performance and a speed that makes the planet stop. If the quickest soccer strikers move at roughly 35kmh, then Bolt's peak - from the 60m to 80m mark while setting his 100m world record - was 44.72kmh. But is it the right sort of fast?

None of that explains Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won Olympic golds in a throw (javelin) and sprint (80m hurdles) and silver in a jump (high), events which don't qualify as any sort of cousins. Evidently  exhausted by all this skilful action,  she decided to stand still for a living and won 82 golf tournaments. 

Zaharias was active from the 1930s to 1950s, an era when a narrow focus on a single sport still hadn't arrived. Kids played everything, which is what Gordon recommends. "Be athletes first," he counsels "then specialise later. Without doubt it's good to play multiple sports when younger."   Except these days, if a three-year-old kid hits a golf ball 50 yards, overbearing fathers think they've discovered a Tiger cub whose life must be entirely devoted to swinging a club. 

But at the adult level, specialisation is imperative. Fields are thick with talent now, training so exhausting, schedules so pressing, that juggling two sports is improbable. "The amount of time and specialisation most athletes put into one sport," says Farrow, "makes it really hard to to do two." Sport used to be played in seasons, but now only in years.

But perhaps Bolt is merely shifting sports, a bit like Rebecca Romero, who won Olympic silver in the quadruple sculls in 2004 and then gold in cycling's individual pursuit in 2008. "It's been so hard," she told The Telegraph then. "I can't explain what I had to go through." Sport is joy, but mostly labour. 

Bolt -  to complete an amusing exercise -will come  to football armed with a knowledge of high performance and a speed that makes the planet stop. If the quickest soccer strikers move at roughly 35kmh, then Bolt's peak - from the 60m to 80m mark while setting his 100m world record - was 44.72kmh.

But is it the right sort of fast?

As Farrow notes, speed in football is tested across short distances: from 5m to 20m, with an ability to repeat. "I don't know how well Usain would do on either of those," he says. Primarily because the opening stage of the 100m is the slowest part of Bolt's race. 

Sprinters also run in straight lines, while goal-scorers do that swaying dance borrowed from their alpine slaloming cousins.But maybe Bolt has other skills. Maybe a guy of his cool would dribble calmly. Maybe a fellow of his stature would be adroit in the air. Maybe, of course, we're just on the wrong footballing track with this genius. 

Maybe we should revise our thinking. And consider that he's 1.95m tall, has got  long arms, is clearly flexible and obviously brave. He's spent too much of his life on the move, probably enjoys being sprawled on the ground and is the god of small spaces.

Yup, Usain Bolt might just be a hell of a goalkeeper.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Reboot to football: Don't see it as a Bolt from the blue'. Print Edition | Subscribe