BEIJING (Reuters) - Michael Phelps won his seventh gold medal in Beijing by a fingertip on Saturday to join fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz on the highest peak of Olympic achievement but preparing to climb the summit alone.
The 23-year-old Phelps equaled Spitz’s 1972 haul when he won the 100 meters butterfly final in 50.58 seconds, touching out Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by 0.01 seconds, to stay on course for an unprecedented eighth gold in Sunday’s medley relay.
Serbia lodged a protest over the result, initially believing Cavic had won, but the sport’s world governing body threw out the appeal after reviewing the finish frame by frame.
“I personally looked at the video footage and it was very clear that the Serbian swimmer touched second after Michael Phelps,” said Ben Ekumbo, the race referee.
Phelps looked to be in danger of suffering his first defeat in the Water Cube when he turned for home in seventh place, but summoned the strength to chase down Cavic and pip him on the line after gambling on one last stroke instead of instinctively reaching out for the wall.
“I thought it cost me the race...but I ended up making the right decision,” Phelps said.
“One hundredth is the smallest of margins of victory in sport. It’s pretty cool, that’s all I can say.”
Cavic, who added to the drama by staring down Phelps before they mounted the starting blocks, thought he should have beaten the American.
”I didn’t beat Phelps but perhaps I‘m the only guy who had a real shot at him,“ Cavic said. ”If we went through this again, I would win it.
It was the first time Phelps had failed to break a world record in a final at Beijing but by equaling Spitz, he earned an instant $1 million bonus from his sponsors but said he was never motivated by the money.
“It really does show that no matter what you set your imagination to, you can do it. No matter how big your dream, anything is possible.”
Shortly after Phelps dragged himself out of the pool, Rebecca Adlington broke the oldest world record in swimming to win the women’s 800 freestyle.
Adlington cruised to victory in 8:14.10 to slash 2.12 seconds off the old mark of 8:16.22 set by American Janet Evans in Tokyo in 1989, six months after Adlington was born.
Italian Alessia Filippi finished a distant second in 8:20.23 to win silver while Denmark’s Lotte Friis was third in 8:23.03.
Adlington also won the 400 freestyle on Friday and her 800 victory saw her become the first Briton to win two Olympic swimming titles since Henry Taylor won the men’s 400 and 1,500 freestyle in 1908.
“If anyone would have said before the Games that I’d win two golds and break the world record, I’d have laughed in their face, I’d never thought it,” Adlington said.
Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry also set a world record to successfully defend her 200 backstroke title, lifting the total of swimming records in Beijing to 23 with one day to go.
Coventry, who had won three silvers already in Beijing, led from start to finish to win her first gold of the Games in 2:05.24 and provide some cause for celebration in her troubled African homeland.
She carved 0.85 off the old record set by American Margaret Hoelzer, who finished second to claim the silver medal, while Japan’s Reiko Nakamura took the bronze medal.
“I‘m so proud to be representing Zimbabwe here...it means so much to me to hear the national anthem play,” Coventry said.
Cesar Cielo Filho became the first Brazilian to win an Olympic swimming gold medal when he won the men’s 50 freestyle sprint in 21.30.
France’s Amaury Leveaux finished second in 21.45 while compatriot and 100 champion Alain Bernard was third in 21.49.
“There are two Frenchmen on the podium,” Leveaux said.
“We won medals in a race that has been dominated for years by madmen. It’s crazy.”
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty)
Editing by Greg Stutchbury