Saturday: Phelps gets first gold; Greeks banned
Posted: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:04AM; Updated: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:04AM
ATHENS, Aug 14 (Reuters) -- Teenage American swimmer Michael Phelps on Saturday claimed the first of a hoped-for eight gold medals at the Athens Olympics with a world record time and his Australian rival Ian Thorpe also made a winning start.
On a baking first full day of competition, Greece suspended Olympic sprint champion Costas Kenteris and silver medallist Katerina Thanou from the national team for missing drugs tests in a scandal that has stunned the host nation.
But Greek officials left the final decision on the pair's participation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has vowed to show "zero tolerance" on doping. An IOC disciplinary panel meets on Monday to consider their case.
China led the medals table after the first day with four golds, two apiece in shooting and diving.
Other gold medal winners, also presented with olive wreaths in a return to Olympic roots, included two Japanese judokas, and two Italians -- a fencer and a rider in the cycle road race.
But Phelps, attempting to better Mark Spitz's achievement of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, was the main attraction.
Pumped by Eminem rapping in his earphones, the 19-year-old from Baltimore broke his own world record by 0.15 seconds to win the 400 metres individual medley in four minutes 08.26 seconds.
"I've got one off my shoulders," Phelps said.
"Right now I can feel tears coming on. It's something I thought about every day of my swimming career."
Phelps could collect his second gold on Sunday with the United States favourites to win the 4x100 freestyle. But his biggest duel will be the following day when he tackles world record holder Thorpe, 21, in the 200 freestyle.
The "Thorpedo" has dismissed Phelps's eight-medal record attempt as unrealistic. He began his campaign with a narrow win in the 400 metres freestyle, adding another gold to the three he won in Sydney four years ago along with two silver medals.
He was only able to swim in the race because team mate Craig Stevens gave him his place after Thorpe was disqualified for a false start in the Australian trials.
"One of my best friends chose to give me this opportunity and I'm very grateful for that," Thorpe said. "I treasure this experience more than winning the actual medal itself."
Australia claimed a second gold in the women's 4x100 metres as another world record tumbled and Ukraine's Yana Kochklova retained her 400 metres individual medley title.
Greece defied many doomsayers with a flawless opening ceremony on Friday night after getting venues ready on time.
But many Greeks have felt a sense of shame over the doping test drama around sprinters Kenteris and Thanou, particularly as these Games had been billed as a return to pure Olympic values.
Drugs testers failed to find the pair -- who have denied repeated rumours of doping -- at the Olympic Village on Thursday and at a training base in the United States earlier in the week.
Hours later, the training partners were involved in a mysterious motorcycle crash which meant the IOC had to postpone their disciplinary hearing from Friday to Monday.
"It was decided by a majority to remove the two athletes, with their coach, pending the IOC hearing," Greek national Olympic committee president Lambis Nicolaou said after a meeting of its executive board. "Exchanges were extremely heated."
Olympic ticket sales have hit a sudden slump, Games officials said on Saturday, but it was unclear how far that was a reaction to the doping test affair.
The first gold of the Games went to Du Li, a Chinese student who came from behind to triumph in the women's 10 metre air rifle ahead of rivals from Russia and the Czech Republic.
"I wasn't fully prepared mentally at the start," Du, 22, said at a tumultuous news conference interrupted by Chinese reporters asking for autographs and souvenir photos.
"But I regained my confidence from the second shot. Before my last shot I was fully confident. I wasn't nervous at all."
Japanese judokas claimed a double triumph and set records in the process. Tadahiro Nomura became the first triple Olympic champion in the sport while Ryoko Tani's victory made her the first woman to win two Olympic judo titles.
In fencing, Italian Aldo Montano became the third generation of his family to win an Olympic sabre medal, but outdid his father and grandfather by taking gold rather than silver.
Outdoor athletes shrugged off the heat but spectators found it tougher going. Temperatures rose to around 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) at the open-air Aquatic Centre and fans said they could watch only a race or two before heading for shade.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.