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 tall Jamaican in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium last year after he shattered the world 100 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 200 final, this time bettering Michael Johnson’s 1996 mark which statisticians had predicted would last for 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 100 and again broke the 200 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 5.05 metres, 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 multi-million 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 which 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.
Drugs scandals have besmirched the Tour de France and eroded the credibility of athletics and weightlifting.
South Africa cricket captain Hansie Cronje and two other international skippers were banned for life in 2000 for match fixing. This year Formula One team Renault admitted Nelson Piquet had deliberately crashed at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to help team mate Fernando Alonso win the race.
Jones was exposed as a result of the BALCO scandal in which federal investigators discovered she had been one of the clients of a laboratory dedicated to manufacturing performance-enhancing drugs designed to fool the testers.
San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who faces charges that he lied to a grand jury about steroid use after hitting a record 762 career home runs, was another BALCO client.
Despite its travails, sport not only survives but prospers in the rapidly shrinking global village and looks set to thrive further despite the financial crisis which hit the world shortly after the Beijing Games.
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 which 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 land-locked Switzerland twice winning sailing’s America’s Cup thanks to a team of renegade New Zealanders.
At the turn of the decade, the two best footballers in the world, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentine Lionel Messi were both plying their trade in Spain’s Primera Liga.
Television money underwrites modern sport and in particular soccer, now more than ever firmly entrenched as the global game.
Despite the economic crisis, the world governing body FIFA is expected to amass $2.5 billion in television revenue from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
An exclusive broadcast 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 television 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.
Tennis fans can marvel at the artistry of Roger Federer on Wimbledon’s manicured grass, thrill to the muscular vigour of Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros and savour the exploits of sisters Venus and Serena Williams on any surface.
Twenty20 cricket, the three-hour version of a game stretching to five days in traditional tests, has become a phenomenon with the Indian Premier League holding an unprecedented auction to snap up the world’s top players.
Other sports slipped from the limelight, notably heavyweight boxing which became dominated by technically proficient but deeply boring fighters from the old Soviet bloc.
In September 2009 Forbes magazine announced that Tiger Woods, who has succeeded Michael Jordan as the world’s best-known athlete, had become the first sporting billionaire.
Woods has become an athletic and commercial phenomenon since winning the U.S. Masters in 1997 by 12 strokes. In the process he achieved the improbable feat of making golf, sport of the suburban middle classes and the country clubs, appear glamorous.
However, Woods’s lifetime ambition to overhaul Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors was put on hold in the final month of the decade when he admitted to cheating on his wife and announced he was taking an indefinite break from the game.
Woods is a wonderful golfer, probably the best to play the game, and an implacable competitor as he demonstrated while winning the U.S. Open on one leg last year.
What he is not is the new messiah predicted in the more fanciful prophecies of his late father Earl or the impossibly perfect individual portrayed in the carefully crafted corporate image the sponsors crave.
One of the joys of sport is its unpredictability. The Woods case, which shows that athletes however gifted possess the same human frailties as the spectators, is all part of the appeal.