Sport, Financial Capitalism and Usain Bolt

By | January 16, 2014

Do financial capitalism and its accoutrements, extending to a distinctively postmodern culture, warrant a revision of the characterization of modern sport? Have things moved on? It will be remembered that modern sport was thought to justify unambiguously positive responses to each of Guttman’s original criteria of: secularism, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, quantification and records. It might be helpful, en route to an argument for a discernibly new phase of what some colleagues in sociology call ‘sportization’ in financial capitalism, to respond to these queries via reflections on the ever-changing social environs of those superstars of track-and-field, the Olympic sprint champions.

To run fast, or better fastest, has doubtless always brought its rewards, whether in self-esteem, local prestige or more tangibly in terms of material goods. It is difficult to resist the notion that a conspicuously fleet-footed Navaho, Mayan or nomadic hunter prior to the Neolithic revolution enjoyed and maybe profited from ‘his’ prowess. There is no doubt that there is something in common between speedsters everywhere; and more specifically between those earliest of Olympic sprint champions in the 8th century BC and Usain Bolt. It is surely possible to acknowledge the embodied satisfaction of ‘being fastest’ without falling foul of the vicissitudes of time and place. Moreover, if it is to be argued, as it will be in the paragraphs that follow, that Usain Bolt is a quintessential or ‘structured’ product of his time and place, of financial capitalism and our postmodernized culture, this must, it seems, be despite those variations and eccentricities of personality that feature on and off throughout history.

There is a view that the earliest of sprinters may actually have been faster than Bolt. After all, the return on embodied proficiency has arguably declined exponentially since hunter-gatherers peopled the Earth. Americans heading for shopping malls and food markets rather than precious but elusive prey use their cars to travel 100 metres.  Closer to home, maybe Bob Hayes, Olympic winner in 1964, was faster than Bolt, a conjecture that his time on the anchor leg of the sprint relay final renders plausible. Since Hayes’ time tracks, kit and athletic conditioning have been continuously refined. These are matters for journalists and lay experts who gather in bars the world over to ponder and dispute.

While it is known that the short foot-race – of approximately 200 metres – was the only event at the first thirteen Olympiads, and that its victors were feted and lavishly rewarded by their city-states of origin, very little is known about the early winners, or indeed of those later ‘superstars’ who won three successive Olympic titles, like Chionos of Sparta (664, 660 and 656 BC) and Astylos of Croton (488, 484 and 480 BC). Nor is much known of the victors of short-course racing during those several centuries between the ancient games and the re-invention of the ‘Olympics’ by de Courbertin at the tail end of the 19th century. Since the reinvention of the Olympics however, much more information is available on a succession of victors in sprints, Olympic medallists or not.

The sociological point I want to emphasize here is that if the focus is on what we know of individual sprinters, ancient or modern, there is a strong sense of continuity rather than discontinuity. Nor is this just about embodied satisfaction and worth. The American Charley Paddock, Olympic 100 metres champion in 1920, was every bit as charismatic, enterprising and self-promoting as Bolt. He invented similar ways of honing the attention of what in the 1920s were supporters rather than fans. He donned garish track outfits and wore specially made running shoes of deer or elk skin; but his piece de resistance was reserved for the end of races when he performed his unique ‘jump finish,’ taking off from the track some 10 to 12 feet from the tape and hurling himself through it in mid-air. Harold Abrahams, his successor as champion in 1924, was probably more committed to professional – or scientific – coaching, courtesy of Sam Mussabini, than was the Bolt who won in Beijing (his story is told, if with a degree of poetic licence, in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire). Paddock was a showman and Abrahams painstakingly methodical. Both now seem ahead of their times, if in very different ways.

What is of interest for present purposes, however, is what follows from applying the two sets of four propositions advanced in an earlier blog. What these two sets of propositions point to is a need to step back from and contextualize the present, a task considerably more complex than contextualizing the past. So what, beyond what seem like archetypically individual accomplishments, traits and eccentricities, might make Bolt a product of his time and place, of a structured, if not structurally determined, post-modern rather than modern socio-cultural habitat? The account that follows draws loosely on (a) the two sets of propositions, and (b) the characteristics of financial capitalism identified above.

There is no doubting that Usain St Leo Bolt from Trelawny in Jamaica, according to the record books the fastest of the fast men, is a truly global phenomenon. But so of course were a number of his sprinter predecessors. He differs from them, from the likes of the legendary Jessie Owens for example, in that the images and narratives of his precocious emergence in the global arena were transmitted instantaneously across all continents: at the tender age of 15 he made the front cover of the American magazine Track and Field News. Time and space are dramatically compressed in our 24/7 present. In adolescence, then, Bolt was already ascribed an identity by the mass media which was subsequently to assume a life of its own.  It was the Beijing Olympics in 2008 that was to clinch his place in history. Duncanson writes of his 100 metres win:

‘Men against boys. A new world record of 9.69 and he made it look easy. Simply unbelievable. The crowd in the stadium erupted at the performance – and then again at the time on the scoreboard. They had just witnessed an astonishing piece of history’.

As had many millions everywhere, ‘live’ on television or satellite. Duncanson draws on Bolt’s own testimony:

‘And that’s when it happened. ‘I just pointed both arms skywards and mimicked the action of a bolt being fired. It wasn’t pre-planned, it just came and I did it’. It would become Bolt’s signature and the crowd loved it’.

There was more to come as Bolt re-fuelled on McDonalds’ chicken nuggets and bettered Michael Johnson’s world record for the 200 metres, coming home in 19.30 seconds. A third gold medal and world record was achieved when the Jamaican quartet won the sprint relay. The Beijing performances were backed up in the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. Bolt won the 100 metres in a world record 9.58 seconds; the 200 metres in a world record 19.19 seconds; and was once again a member of the gold medal Jamaican relay quartet. And then came London in 2012! His life could never be the same.

Post-modern celebrity may or may not carry an element of achievement (in Bolt’s case it undeniably does), but it is essentially ascribed and rapidly becomes resistant to agential control.  Some contemporary sports people reflexively or knowingly embrace celebrity wholeheartedly, even to the extent that it becomes their overriding project; others, perhaps most, aspire to keep tabs on it, notwithstanding its rewards and blandishments; and yet others are uncomfortable and withdrawn.  Bolt purported to come into the second category, affecting to steer the rollercoaster, but he is also a major brand. Since Beijing and Berlin he has been a focus for large-scale investment inside and outside of sport. His sponsors, Puma, agreed a deal with him in 2010, reported to be worth more than $30 million over three years, that made him the richest track-and-field athlete to date. His agents PACE Sports Management can now ask for $200,000 a race on the European circuit.

The way Bolt tells it, between him and those who would most ruthlessly profit from his brand stand his long-term friends and mentors, guarantors of at least a residual agency. The structural, cultural and institutional complex in which he finds himself, however, is what makes him a distinctively post-modern celebrity. Bolt’s world is a global, hyper-rationalized and networked configuration in which, like many a transnational commodity, he, or more precisely his ‘ascribed identity’ (Usain Bolt mark II), can be manufactured and traded or, in class terms, exploited: even more money will accrue to investors in Usain Bolt mark II than accrues to the flesh-and-blood sprinter whose remarkable exploits made his appropriation such a good investment  (which is not of course to downplay his own astonishing earnings). Not that things always go according to plan. It has been said of the investors/minders of one of the greatest of recent sprinters, Carl Lewis, managed, at least for a while, to under-sell their asset by mis-managing his ascribed identity as Carl Lewis mark II.

Meanwhile Usain Bolt mark II is an asset to be protected. As the Olympic Games in London in August 2012 drew closer, the International Olympic Committee anticipated revisions to the false-start rules to ensure that Usain Bolt mark II, the athlete everyone wants to see, along with his iconic signature, was not prematurely disqualified. The stakes were high and the class-command dynamic cannot tolerate the catastrophe of a non-event. Witness the breakdown of ticket sales for the men’s 100 metres final. In the event no such precautions were required. Despite what seemed like a questionable run of form and hot competition from fellow-Jamaican Johan Blake, Bolt went on to win the 100 metres in a 9.63 seconds, a new Olympic Record, following up with a victories in the 200 metres, in 19.32 seconds, and the relay, in a new World Record of 36.84 seconds. Blake followed Bolt home in both sprints and joined him on the rostrum for the relay. It was a phenomenal achievement on Bolt’s part, replicating the clean sweep at Beijing, and he duly declared himself to be ‘a living legend’. Usain Bolt mark I had given a decisive and timely boost to Usain Bolt mark II.

Guttman’s characterization of modern sport showed positives for each of secularism, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, quantification and records. Do his criteria allow for a convincing recognition of the different context in which Bolt is pitting his talents and skills? The answer is probably yes and no. On the one hand it would be difficult to deny that Guttman’s depiction of modern sport broadly applies to sport into the 21st century. On the other hand it should be clear that Owens and Bolt are products of very different phases of capitalist social formation. Owens, the issue of a pre-civil rights USA, travelled to Berlin by boat and was always to carry the stigma of his colour, while Bolt flies in more ways than one and has far less need to apologize for who he is. To summarize what has been suggested here in a single, telling phrase, and at the same time to critique Guttman’s scheme, Bolt is the progeny of a financial capitalism characterized by an exhilarating but unforgiving high-tech connectivity against which reflexivity affords little protection. Headlines, rumours, stories, faux pas and lies, no less than celebrity signatures, travel with unremitting and often merciless speed.

It was in the Stockholm Games of 1912 that photo-finishes were introduced, although the results took an unconscionably long time to arrive. The first live radio broadcast took place at the Paris Games of 1924. The Berlin Games of 1936 were the first to be televised, with events being relayed throughout the Olympic village. During the Rome Games in 1960 television crews flew tapes to New York to be broadcast, fundamentally changing the dialectic between competitors and publics. Live colour pictures were transmitted via satellite to the US in the Tokyo Games of 1964, and results stored on computer for the first time. The Los Angeles Games in 1984 introduced email to the Olympic domain. The first Games website was launched in Atlanta in 1996. By the time of the Beijing Games of 2008, site of Bolt’s major breakthrough, there were 3,600 hours of broadcast coverage, exceeding all the coverage from all the previous Games. And yet now even Beijing seems dated.

The Olympic/Paralympic Games in London hosted 14,700 athletes and 26,500 media personnel; engaged 70,000 volunteers; oversaw a million plus visits to the Olympic stadium; saw 10 million people connecting to ‘’; sold 10.8 million tickets; and was the focus of attention for 4 billion people worldwide during the Games. The men’s 100 metres final remained the stand-out event (even allowing for Team GBs ‘local’ track-and-field successes). For hours at least, and maybe for days, weeks and months, Usain Bolt mark II was the global and cyber-focal point for disciples of facebook, twitter etc. The network infrastructure was in the hands of Cisco, whose prior track record had included the Beijing Games and FIFA World Cup in 2010. When the Games were over, we were informed, the network infrastructure ‘will be re-purposed into world-class business hubs’.


Duncanson,N (2011)  The Fastest Men on Earth: the Story of the Men’s 100 Metres Olympic Champions. London; Andre Deutsch.

Guttman (1978)  From Ritual to Record: the Nature of Modern Sports.  New York; Columbia University Press.

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