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DateLine Tuesday, 26 August 2008

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Phelps, Bolt electrify Beijing, China charges to the top

Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt electrified the Beijing Olympics, securing their places in Games’ lore over 17 days of competition that saw hosts China confirm their arrival as a global sporting power.

America’s Phelps amazed at the Water Cube, surpassing fellow US swimmer Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record of seven gold medals at one Games with a eight - seven of them with world record times.

Along the way the unassuming 23-year-old matched and then surged past the record nine career gold medals of Games icons Spitz, Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and Larysa Latynina, taking his career tally to 14 including the six he won in Athens.

“You can’t put it in words what he has done here,” Australian great Grant Hackett said. “His level of achievement is phenomenal, and I don’t think it will ever be seen again.”

With the end of the nine-day swimming competition, Phelps ceded the spotlight to Bolt, who polished the drugs-tarnished image of athletics with a scintillating sprint performance at the Bird’s Nest National Stadium.

The gangly Jamaican, who celebrated his 22nd birthday in Beijing, mined gold and claimed world records in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay, another unprecedented feat.

His individual Olympic sprint double was the first since America’s Lewis in the boycott-depleted 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the first with twin world records.

Bolt, whose good-natured pre-race posturing and exuberant post-race celebrations endeared him to fans, spearheaded a six-gold showing by Jamaica.

“He is not human,” St. Kitts and Nevis veteran Kim Collins said of Bolt. “It’s ridiculous.” While Phelps and Bolt reigned over the Games’s showpiece sports, China were making Olympic history of their own.

Determined to top the medals table in their home Games, China succeeded spectacularly, with 51 gold medals in a dizzying array of sports. As well as dominating traditional strongholds such as badminton, shooting, table tennis and diving, Chinese medallists popped up in everything from archery to yachting as first-ever medals littered China’s resume.

Their successes were greeted rapturously by fans at venues across Beijing, from the iconic Water Cube and Bird’s Nest to less distinctive arenas as well as in more far-flung venues such as Qingdao’s yacht basin.

There were disappointments to be sure - particularly the devastating loss to injury of defending 110m hurdles champion Liu Xiang and the quarter-final exit of a basketball team led by homegrown NBA star Yao Ming. But the gold rush earned the hosts the distinction of becoming only the third country since World War II, along with the United States and the Soviet Union, to top an Olympic medals table.

“We have achieved great sports results,” said Chinese sports minister and Olympic chef de mission Liu Peng. “This is the best performance since China began competing in the Olympics.”

Not all of China’s triumphs came without controversy. As the Games ended, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was reviewing documents handed over by the host country in a bid to prove that all of its gymnasts were, in fact, old enough to compete.

Judging controversies surfaced, again, notably in boxing and taekwondo. A new scoring system in gymnastics - instigated to end the kind of controversy that erupted in Athens - sparked discontent, even among officials of the sport. Away from the field of play, contentious issues that were prominent in the build-up to the Games largely slipped into the background.

Tibetan and Muslim minorities continued to complain of repression, dissidents were intimidated into silence or detained, and the Internet remained censored despite promises it would be unblocked.

But predicted protests by athletes themselves within the Olympic venues, potentially embarrassing to both China and the International Olympic Committee, failed to materialize as competitors focussed on the task at hand.

While the United States couldn’t match China’s gold total, their depth was obvious in their leading number of overall medals with 110 to China’s 100.

Phelps lead a predictably strong US charge in the pool, his dominant performance coming in a meet that saw an astonishing 25 world records fall. The superstar millionaires of the National Basketball Association, led by Most Valuable Player Kobe Bryant, regained the gold that eluded them in Athens.

Even with one of its worst Olympic showings, US athletics finished atop the gold medal standings thanks to its men’s 4x400m relay squad in the final track race of the Games. With London’s 2012 Games looming on the horizon, Great Britain signalled they were warming up for their home Olympics with a 47-medal haul that included 19 golds, slotting in right behind third-placed Russia with 23 gold. Russia’s successes included a women’s pole vault world record by Yelena Isinbayeva, who continued her complete domination of the event.

Lesser known names from less expected places were celebrating as well, as first-time athletics golds went to Belgium, Brazil and Panama while South Korea, Tunisia and Brazil all tasted their first swimming gold.

In all, 87 nations found their way onto the medals table, up from 74 in Athens, a figure that Rogge hailed as “a proof of the universality of the Games.”




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