America's swimming talisman Michael Phelps yesterday remained on course to become the most prolific winner of Olympic gold medals in history when he won his second of these Games and the eighth of his career. It came in an extraordinary 4x100 metres freestyle relay final where five of the eight teams broke the world record set by the US in the heats, and where France looked like odds-on, stone-cold favourites to win until the very last moment of a scintillating race.
That the United States' Jason Lezak managed to out-touch Alain Bernard of France at the wall seemed quite astonishing. The 32-year-old Lezak, the oldest male member of the US team here, was more than half a body length behind Bernard entering the final 50m but absolutely gobbled the gap. His 46.06 seconds split time was mesmerising, helping the US to win in a world record of 3 minutes 8.24 seconds, with France second and Australia third. The margin between first and second was 0.08sec. Fingertips, or less.
Victory meant Phelps, who won six golds in Athens, was just one shy of a world record nine, which is also the number won by Mark Spitz, plus two track and field athletes, and one gymnast. Phelps screamed, fist-pumped and flexed his muscles to extremes in delight. "I was going nuts," he said. "As soon as he [Lezak] came off that last wall, I started going crazy. We're a team. We went in as a team and now we're exiting as a team and we're going out with that gold that we needed to get back."
In the first leg of the race, Eamon Sullivan of Australia broke the individual 100m world record in 47.24sec, beating the previous mark of 47.50sec. "You could tell I was pretty excited," said Phelps, who arrived at the Games with the aim of winning eight golds to beat the mark of seven at one event set by Spitz in 1972. "I lost my voice and I was definitely pretty emotional."
The US President, George Bush, was again a spectator here as Phelps left the US team in second place after swimming the first leg, trailing a French team who had vowed to "smash" them. "Jason finished that race better than we could even ask for," Phelps said. The Americans took nearly four seconds off the world record, a huge margin.
Britain finished eighth but there was no shame in that as they also broke the British record in 3min 12.87sec.
"Experience prevailed over talent today, and I regret that," said Frederick Bousquet, who swam a powerful third leg for an ultimately deflated French team.
After winning seven straight golds in the 4x100m freestyle relay event, the Americans were beaten by Australia and South Africa at the last two Olympics. "I've been on the last two relays where we come up short," Lezak said. "To be honest with you, I got really tired of losing. I finished real strong."