Jamaican sprinter and Olympic Gold medalist Usain Bolt had quite a time on the track last night. He won the 200-meter World Championships in Beijing. Then, when he was taking his victory lap, he was accidentally run over by a cameraman riding on a Segway.
Bolt’s feet flew out from under him and he landed on his back side. Bolt quickly popped up, but limped off. Then, he was all smiles.
In an interview afterwards, Bolt jokingly blamed his rival, American sprinter, Justin Gatlin for paying the camera person to take him out.
“He tried to kill me. I don’t know what’s going on. He’s like, 'you’re winning too much, take him out,'" said Bolt.
Bolt may have had a good laugh about it. But it was no laughing matter to former Olympic gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson, who was working as a commentator for the BBC. “That could’ve been career-ending,” said Johnson. “That could’ve been a lot worse."
Bolt could have ruptured an Achilles, torn some tendons, or broken some bones.
Athletes get injured all the time, of course. That’s part of the game, or track meet in this example, and their contracts are designed to protect them.
“Players negotiate rules for insurance through collective bargaining with owners,” says Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "And collective bargaining will lead to policies on disability, on pension, and ways in which players and/or teams can buy insurance for players in the event that they're injured."
Players covered by collective bargaining agreements are in leagues like Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL. The amount an injured pro player receives depends on the size of their contract and the guarantees written into the agreements. Many athletes take out supplemental insurance as well. (And teams take out their own insurance on having to pay injured players.)
McCann says it doesn’t matter if athletes get injured away from the action, as long as the injury was sustained during what’s loosely defined as the course of employment. For example, working out.
“Certainly a player exercising on his own during the off-season, that isn’t directly part of his employment,” says McCann. “But is likely within the scope of his employment because he's getting in better shape, he's becoming more muscular, those are attributes that will help him on the field."
The scope of employment almost surely includes taking a victory lap. But Usain Bolt, and sprinters like him, aren't part of a union.
“They don’t have the protections from collective bargaining," says Chris Douglas, president of Presidio Sports Management, a sports law firm in San Francisco. "Essentially, they (non-union athletes) don't have insurance protections, the same things from a union environment. The national bodies provide some help, codifying some rules, but for the most part the athletes are on their own.”
Douglas represents endurance runners and cyclists. Athletes like this don’t get rich through salaries or winnings. They earn pay checks through endorsements. And sponsors typically have injury clauses — if an athlete can’t perform for 30, 60, or 90 days, the contract can be terminated. Too bad for them.
“This wouldn’t happen in the context of someone like Usain Bolt because he’s such an iconic, world, well-known figure,” says Douglas.
Even if Bolt were injured and was out for a few months, or a year, Gatorade would be unlikely to dump its star.
“My assumption would be that someone of his caliber, he would be in no worry of losing his sponsorships,” says Douglas. “He still provides a lot of value to the brands, and he’s still going to be universally recognized for years to come.”
Douglas advises his clients to read the fine print on the deals they sign. After all, they can’t fall back on the luxury of claiming to have once been the fastest person in the history of the world, just nursing an injury.
As for the cameraperson, Song Tao, Bolt shook his hand and checked to make sure he was OK. Song says he's ready to get back to work.