The Prestige of the Multi-Sport Athlete

Adam Williams looks at those athletes blessed with enough sporting ability to compete in completely different fields during their careers.

Adam Williams
29th October 2018
Image- Wikimedia Commons

The old adage remains as true as ever, football really is a funny old game. In this instance in fact, it borders on the hilarious.

In the summer of 2008, Ross McCormack was completing a thoroughly unglamorous free transfer from Motherwell to Cardiff. He was most likely aware that a few weeks prior, a young Jamaican called Usain Bolt smashed the 100m world record in New York with a staggering time of 9.72 seconds.

10 years later and Bolt has twice broken his own record and completed a famous clean sweep of gold medals in three consecutive Olympics. McCormack spent the rest of his career in the Championship. During these years of relative mediocrity, the Scot, it is safe to say, probably did not imagine that while playing for Central Coast Mariners in Australia’s A-League, he would assist the world superstar’s first goal in professional football.

A well taken goal it was too, Bolt using his famed acceleration to race on to McCormack’s dinked through ball, taking the ball down on his knee before drilling a low shot past the keeper’s near post. Even in the wake of such a glittering career on the track, it was a fairy tale moment for Bolt, who has long harboured an ambition to make the jump from athletics to football. As if this wasn’t enough, a few minutes later he added a second, walking the ball into the net following a mix up between opposition keeper and defender.

As always with Bolt, the spectacle and showmanship play a part. He wears the number 95 in honour of his 9.58 world record time and of course he celebrated his goal with his signature ‘lighting’ pose. He has, however, conducted himself with a characteristic not usually associated with one of the greatest athletes of all time- humility.

Bolt, until now, has never had any reason to be humble. For over a decade he was utterly imperious in his field, winning everything it was possible to win. Now, however, he finds himself in an unfamiliar situation. There is no doubt Bolt’s trial with the Mariners is fuelled by the media storm. The commercial benefits of having one of the most famous athletes in the world on your team are all too obvious. Bolt, and the staff at the Mariners, will be under no illusions that he is not currently of the standard to play professional football, at least not at this level. The two goals masked the fact that he looks uncomfortable on the ball and not at all a natural finisher.

Time will tell if Bolt’s venture into football will prove fruitful. Somehow one suspects it will not. There is, however, something undeniably noble about an athlete of such stature opening themselves up to ridicule, valiantly placing themselves out of their comfort zone and into scenarios which test their abilities in ways which they have not previously been tested. Ultimately, this attribute which all great competitors have, to consistently challenge themselves, is what makes them great.

There are numerous athletes who have competed and excelled in multiple traditional Olympic sports. Although a phenomenon more prevalent before the modern era, it is one that still occurs. Notable contemporary examples can be seen in sportsmen and women who compete in events which have directly transferable skills such as swimming and water polo or volleyball and beach volleyball. While impressive, going from one particular sport to a radically different one is surely more so.

An example of an athlete who made such a jump in the reverse fashion to Bolt (going from football to another sport) is Lev Yashin. The legendary Russian goalkeeper, as well as being one of the all-time great stoppers and the only player of his position to win the Ballon d’Or, also played ice hockey at international level. Yashin straddled these two disciplines in the 1950's, and while in no way should this take away from his achievement, the nature of professional sport and the demands it makes on athletes has significantly evolved since. The physical exertion required and vast amounts of money at stake means it would be nigh on impossible for an athlete to participate, full time, in two sports simultaneously. Athletes who want the distinction of having competed in more than one sport then are only able to do so after their career in their primary sport has come to an end.

A contemporary example of an athlete who took a comparable route and who enjoys a similarly eminent reputation to Bolt can be found in Michael Jordan. Like Bolt, Jordan is lauded as the greatest to ever compete in his sport. Not content with his domination of basketball, the former Chicago Bulls shooting guard wanted to fulfil a childhood dream of playing professional baseball and did so for the Chicago White Sox.

While Jordan did not excel, he was fairly competent at a relatively high level. A monumental achievement when one considers the fact that some dedicate their entire lives trying to make it in baseball and fail to do so. Michael Jordan walked into a professional team at the age of 31 with no meaningful previous experience and did not in any way disgrace himself. Plainly some are born naturally exceptional athletes with the ability to succeed in whichever sport they happen to choose. This is certainly something Bolt can take inspiration from.

One thing is for sure, this is not Soccer Aid. Bolt will find that the footballing world is cutthroat and that no one, however distinguished their profile, has a divine right to success. That being said, I hope Bolt makes me and the rest of his doubters eat our words. It would be wonderful and comical in equal measure to see the fastest man in history taking on ageing centre halves, perhaps in England’s lower leagues, on a regular basis.

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