broadcasters call the shots

LONDON - Amid the soaring triumphs and tawdry scandals underscoring the first decade of the new millennium, Usain Bolt reminded the world why sport captivates and exalts so many people.

LONDON - Amid the soaring triumphs and tawdry scandals underscoring the first decade of the new millennium, Usain Bolt reminded the world why sport captivates and exalts so many people.

A roar of disbelief greeted the Jamaican in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium last year after he shattered the world 100m record and became the first person to run under 9,7 seconds.

The wonder was provoked not just by the time but by the manner in which the race was run and won. Bolt made a mockery of the previous world mark and the efforts of his hapless opponents, despite slowing down and glancing to left and right well before the finish.

He set another world record in the 200m final, this time bettering the 1996 mark by Michael Johnson that statisticians had predicted would last 25 years, and added a third when the Jamaicans won the 4x100 relay.

This year, again without appearing to extend himself unduly, Bolt went under 9,6 for the 100m and again broke the 200m mark at the Berlin world championships.

Bolt on the track, Michael Phelps in the pool and Yelena Isinbayeva through the air showed that the most elemental Olympic sports can be the most satisfying.

Phelps won a record eight gold medals in nine days in Beijing with seven world records while Isinbayeva raised her own women's pole vault record to 5,05m, her 24th world mark.

Awe at Bolt's extraordinary feats near the end of the decade followed widespread unease prompted by events at the start.

In 2000 Marion Jones was the athlete of the moment after announcing she would go one better than Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis and win five track and field Olympic golds. Jones, who had featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Vogue while securing multimillion-dollar contacts, spent the Beijing Games in jail after admitting to systematic drug use before Sydney.

Bolt has never failed nor missed a drugs test and the giant stride that eats up the ground faster than any of his contemporaries gives a plausible genetic explanation for his staggering feats.

Still, Bolt and his contemporaries must live with the suspicion that permeates too much sport in the 21st century as the huge financial rewards now available make the pressure to succeed ever more relentless.

Sports are spreading outside their traditional markets, with the 2009 European golf tour, for example, starting in Shanghai and climaxing in Dubai.

Formula One, dominated by seven-times drivers' champion Michael Schumacher in the first part of the decade, showed in Singapore how mesmerising a night race can be.

The 2007 Tour de France started in London, two years after Lance Armstrong won a record seventh consecutive title. Armstrong, who had fought a successful battle against cancer that had invaded his lungs and brain, retired in 2005 but came back in 2009 to finish a creditable third.

Athletes also switched countries to maximise their potential earnings with landlocked Switzerland twice winning sailing's America's Cup thanks to a team of renegade New Zealanders.

TV money underwrites sport and in particular soccer, which is now more than ever firmly entrenched as the global game. Fifa is expected to amass $2,5billion (R18,8billion) in broadcasting revenue from the 2010 World Cup.

An exclusive deal with Rupert Murdoch's Sky television has made the English Premier League the most popular and entertaining in the world and the explosion in the sports and leisure business generates enormous revenues.

In Beijing, the German shoe company adidas sponsored the Chinese National Olympic Committee while its fierce rivals Nike signed up 22 of the Chinese teams. Sport's global appeal has been a direct result of the communications revolution.

Boundaries of time and space vanish with devotees able to watch or follow a dizzying array of events through dedicated channels, specialist websites and magazines.

Their reward is to live in an era when athletes have never been so uniformly skilful and strong and, consequently, the games they play have never been so fast and action-packed. - Reuters