'Baltimore Bullet' has history in his sights

It is only a matter of time now, a few days probably, before Michael Phelps uses his magic hands to claw level with the four most golden Olympians of all time and then, before these Games are done, kick off into distance as the undisputed greatest.

The 23-year-old "Baltimore Bullet"� arrived in China seeking eight golds and won his first here yesterday morning, earning the 400m individual medley title by smashing his own world record – and high-class opposition.

On a day when world and Olympic marks were serially batted aside, even Britain had 10 reasons to smile – despite skies leaden with storm clouds and crackling with lightning – after progress by nine individuals and one relay team to either finals or semis scheduled for this morning in Beijing (the early hours back home).

The relay team in question was the men's 4 x100m freestylers, who qualified in eighth place as an American reserve team smashed the previous world record in the heats. Phelps came east with a 4x100m relay gold as one of his targets.

He intends to join, and then surpass, a quartet of people who jointly hold the record for having won nine Olympic golds in their careers: the Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi (whose first Games was 1920), the Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina (from 1956), Phelps' fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz (from 1968) and athlete Carl Lewis (from 1984).

Phelps won six golds in Athens. Thus he needs just three from eight chances here to tie with the legends. A dollar on him snaffling at least several of his five spare shots to hare off into the sunset would not be a buck wasted.

The company that the 6ft 3in phenomena drew to watch him yesterday was no less famous than the heroes he seeks to put in the shade. His President, George W Bush, was here, as was Dubya's pop, George Snr, and Henry Kissinger.

"Afterwards I looked up and saw President Bush giving me a thumbs up and holding up the American flag,"� Phelps said. "That was pretty cool."�

Less cool was the way the Chinese managed to mess up the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner". It cut short, with the scratch of a needle on an overplayed record. Phelps' wry smile gave way to a laugh, although his Commander-in-Chief did not seem as amused.

Possibly it was a genuine error, sincerely regretted, because later, when all the fans had gone and the Water Cube was virtually empty, a full and booming version was played. It was not hard to imagine some senior mandarin jabbing some hapless DJ in the chest, telling him how to play the piece all the way to the end.�

By the time Phelps has played to the end of the Games, he will have competed in both individual medleys, two butterfly events, the 200m freestyle and three relays. The mark of a truly great champion is not necessarily the way in which he lands his killer blows but in their timing, and if yesterday's win was indicative, we are in for some treat.

Phelps is capable of finding new and powerful ways to succeed. Against his compatriot rival, Ryan Lochte – a multiple champion in his own right – in the USA Olympic trials for the 400m individual medley, Phelps found a turn from the heavens to open an insurmountable lead in the last length, from being neck and neck.

He dived deep, did a dolphin kick, and surged to the surface almost a body length ahead of where Lochte was crawling. "Phelps has been using that as a weapon for a while," said Russell Mark, the biomechanics co-ordinator for USA Swimming. "Logic should say he shouldn't go down deep, but he beats people off that last wall. There is nothing scientific yet to explain why it is effective to take that trajectory."

Yesterday the blow was landed earlier, almost cruelly, when in the backstroke leg – a speciality for Lochte – Phelps stormed into an unassailable lead with one devastating burst.

His new record of 4min 3.84sec took 1.41sec off his own mark. He finished 2.23sec clear of Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, whose 4min 6.16sec was good enough for a new European record. And 4.25sec ahead of Lochte. "He had a great race all the way,"� Lochte said. Phelps said he had actually been nervous. "I got like these cold chills,"� he said. Spooky.

The British highlight of the day was Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson progressing to the 400m freestyle final, both swimming inside the 20-year-old Olympic record of America's Janet Evans to do so. Jemma Lowe in the 100m butterfly also qualified for a Monday morning final.

Before these Games, the last British woman to win any Olympic medal in the pool was Sarah Hardcastle, who won bronze in the 800m freestyle in Los Angeles in 1984. Even finals for Britons have been rarer than Phelps' golds.


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