BEIJING (AFP) — Swimming superstar Michael Phelps launched his quest for Olympic Games immortality on Sunday by smashing his own world record in winning the first of a potential eight gold medals.
Phelps sparked an American charge which saw them win five medals in the pool for a Games total of eight including two gold.
But China were steadily building a lead at the head of the medals table winning four further events to have six gold ahead of South Korea's three as the weather broke in Beijing and torrential rain disrupted tennis and archery.
At the pool, where the first four finals produced two world records, 23-year-old Phelps took centre stage as he opened his bid to break Mark Spitz's 36-year record of seven golds at one Games by winning the men's 400m individual medley.
With US President George W. Bush applauding in the stands, Phelps carved 1.41 seconds off his world record 4:05.25 set last June, but admitted he didn't have high expectations.
"I was in the ready room. I didn't feel so good, I got these cold chills," he said.
"Afterwards, I looked up and saw President Bush giving me the thumbs up and holding up the American flag. That was pretty cool."
By the end of the second full day of competition, the United States struck a psychological blow against the hosts when their collection of multi-millionaire NBA stars outclassed China 101-70 in men's basketball.
Dwyane Wade scored 19 points, LeBron James added 18 and Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard each contributed 13 as the Americans romped in a game that was expected to draw a record global television audience of nearly one billion.
"It was an honour for us to be in this game," said US coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Chinese star center Yao Ming scored 13 points.
But the Olympics, with its theme of "One World, One Dream", continued to be dogged by political reality.
A series of bomb blasts, followed by gunfire, rocked a town in China's mainly Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang, state media reported, adding eight people were killed with four injured.
The bloody turmoil unfolding in the troubled, breakaway region of South Ossetia, meanwhile, came perilously close to sparking a walkout from the Games by Georgia's 35-strong squad in protest at Russia's role in the fighting.
Hours later, Russian and Georgian shooters embraced when Natalie Paderina, ironically a soldier in the Russian army, won silver in the women's 10m air pistol final and Nino Salukvadze of Georgia took bronze behind champion Wenjun Guo of China.
"It's been very difficult for my people," Salukvadze said. "But it was nice of Natalia to come up to me afterwards and give me an embrace."
After Phelps won his first gold, Park Tae-Hwan won South Korea's first ever Olympic swimming title in the men's 400m freestyle, Australia's Stephanie Rice set a world record in taking the women's 400m individual medley while the Netherlands were upset winners in the women's 4x100 freestyle relay.
The US men's 4x100 relay team set a third pool world record winning their heat in the evening session where Phelps was again back in action cruising to second in his heat of the 200 metres freestyle.
As torrential downpours swamped the road race cyclists, several riders fell on the rain-lashed course before Welshwoman Nicole Cooke prevailed in a sprint finish for Britain's first gold.
Top women's tennis seed Ana Ivanovic became the latest big name player to pull out of the Olympics, complaining of a sore thumb, as rain reduced the opening day on the courts to a handful of completed matches.
US number one James Blake, one of the few to finish, said he drew inspiration from Phelps' performance as he beat Australia's Chris Guccione 6-3, 7-6 (7/3).
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