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Bolt reminds the world ...

why sport means so much to so many:

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 Beijingís Birdís 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 Johnsonís 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 womenís pole vault record to 5.05 metres, her 24th world mark. Awe at Boltís 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 driversí champion Michael Schumacher in the first part of the decade, showed in Singapore how mesmerising a night race can be. LONDON, Reuters

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