Usain Bolt dominated three Olympic Games, proved to be the world’s fastest man and became one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. He continues to have international influence with his endorsements, charitable endeavors, and business interests.
However, no matter where his life and his pursuits take him, the Jamaican icon always will remember his performances at the Penn Relays and what the carnival has done to help young Jamaican athletes get noticed by U.S. colleges.
“The Penn Relays is always a great event,” Bolt said Monday in an e-mail response to questions submitted by The Inquirer to his agent. “What makes it so special is that there are so many Jamaican fans in the stadium. Jamaican athletes have been going there for years and we always get great support.”
Bolt, 32, first experienced that support when he made his carnival debut as a 14-year-old in 2001 running for William Knibb High School. He competed at Penn three more times, the last trip being his memorable appearance at the 2010 USA vs. the World competition where he anchored Jamaica Gold to the 4x100 title in a carnival record 37.90 seconds.
He always appreciated the fact that young Jamaican athletes were able to go to Penn “to get experience and to get spotted,” he said.
“It is always very exciting,” he said. “For many young Jamaicans it is their first time in the U.S. or first trip abroad. To travel with your school always makes it easier and prepares them for future life if they go to university or make it to the professional ranks.
“A lot of the U.S. college coaches are there looking for talent. Especially in the days before the Internet, it is a great place to be seen performing well.”
Bolt ran the second leg on William Knibb High’s 4x100 team that won the 2004 small schools title at Penn. He ran for Jamaica in the USA vs. the World competition that year and came back to Franklin Field and the elite competition in 2005.
When Bolt made his next, and most unforgettable, visit to West Philadelphia in 2010, he already had three gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Olympics in his trophy case. He owned the world records in the 100 meters (9.58 seconds) and 200 meters (19.19 seconds).
A crowd of 54,310, the largest anyone could remember at a Penn Relays, turned out and cheered his every move, beginning with his light infield jog about an hour before his race was to start.
“There was a great atmosphere, similar to what we find at European track meets,” Bolt said. “I think there were more Jamaican flags in the stadium that U.S. flags. The Jamaican fans always make a lot of noise and create a great energy. Every stride I did in my warm-up got a cheer.
“It definitely felt like a home meet. The only thing comparable are meets in London where there are also a lot of Jamaican fans.”
It didn’t seem possible the crowd could get any louder but it did when the 6-foot-5 Bolt took the baton from teammate Marvin Anderson for the anchor leg. With his long, gliding stride, he reached the finish line first, with watches recording his split time at 8.8 seconds.
“The experience was wonderful,” he said after the race. “I love running here.”
Bolt would go on to repeat his Olympic 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100 triple at London in 2012 and at Rio in 2016. Even though the International Olympic Committee stripped Jamaica of its 4x100 title in 2008 because of a teammate’s doping disqualification, he still finished his Olympic career with eight gold medals.
Bolt retired from track and field competition after the 2017 World Championships. He was IAAF man of the year six times and won Laureus world sportsman of the year honors four times.
He wasn’t inactive for very long. He began about a year of training with soccer clubs in Norway and Germany before getting a two-month trial with the Central Coast Mariners of the Australian A-League.
He did score two goals in a friendly in Australia but turned down a reported $150,000 deal last November with the Mariners and called it quits. Last January, he told ESPN, “The sports life is over.”
Bolt said Monday he stays “very busy with sponsor work, celebrity events, business activities” and his Usain Bolt Foundation, which seeks to “enhance the character of children through educational and cultural development,” according to his website.
And sometime in the not-too-distant future, he hopes to return to the Penn Relays.