Loss denies Phelps record

South Africa stuns U.S. in 400-meter freestyle relay

? Michael Phelps surely didn’t bargain for this.

His quest to win eight gold medals is over, doomed by America’s worst showing in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Gary Hall Jr. is ticked off. And now comes the toughest race of all against the Thorpedo.

Not exactly what Phelps had in mind when he decided to challenge Mark Spitz.

Phelps got a spot on the relay at the expense of Hall, who didn’t even show up to watch the Americans get blown out of the water by a South African foursome that set a world record Sunday night.

With six events left in Athens, the best Phelps can do now is tie Spitz’s record of seven gold medals from the 1972 Munich Games — and there’s no margin for error. Next up is the 200 free, a race that has been dominated by world record-holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and the most imposing of Phelps’ individual events.

The Americans already seemed to be laying the groundwork for failure.

“Michael will not miss a beat,” U.S. men’s coach Eddie Reese said, “if he doesn’t win seven gold medals.”

The 19-year-old from Baltimore opened with a gold in the 400 individual medley Saturday, but needed to win all eight of his events to surpass Spitz.

“We are disappointed, but we’re fortunate to win a medal,” Phelps said of the bronze. “It’s a learning experience.”

South African swimmers celebrate after winning the 4x100 freestyle relay at the 2004 Olympic Games. The victory Sunday in Athens, Greece, by the South Africans -- from left to right, Darian Townsend, Lyndon Ferns, Roland Mark Schoeman and Ryk Neethling -- prevented American Michael Phelps from winning eight gold medals.

A learning experience that apparently left Hall seething. One of the greatest sprinters in American history didn’t even show up at the pool after being told he would be left off the team that swam the evening final.

“It’s disappointing he wasn’t here,” Phelps said.

Hall could not be reached for comment, but his agent, David Arluck, clearly was displeased that a three-time Olympian was left off the team at the expense of someone who never had participated on an Olympic relay team.

“Gary is one of the best Olympians of all time,” Arluck said. “I can’t believe they kept him off the relay for some 19-year-old guy who is going after something that he’s not going to accomplish anyway.”

The South Africans broke the Aussies’ world record with a time of 3 minutes, 13.17 seconds. The Netherlands took silver at 3:14.36, while Phelps and his American teammates finished third at 3:14.62.

The Americans never had lost an Olympic 400 free relay until they were upset by the Australians at the 2000 Sydney Games — both teams breaking the previous world record.

Jenny Thompson again was denied an individual gold, finishing fifth in the 100 butterfly. Any medal would have been the 12th of Thompson’s career — more than any other American — but she remains tied with swimmers Spitz and Matt Biondi and shooter Carl Osburn.

Softball

Lisa Fernandez and the U.S. softball team showed no mercy — again.

Fernandez allowed one hit, and the Americans dominated their old Olympic nemesis Australia, blowing out the two-time bronze medalists, 10-0, in a game called after five innings because the Aussies were too far behind.

International rules state a game ends whenever a team trails by seven runs or more after five innings — the so-called slaughter rule.

After an eight-run fourth inning, all Fernandez had to do was get three outs in the fifth to finish off Australia (1-1), the only team to beat the United States twice in Olympic competition. Both times, Fernandez was the loser.

The United States (2-0), seeking its third straight gold medal, has won its first two games in Greece by a combined 17-0 score with both ending via the mercy rule. The Americans beat Italy on Saturday.

Men’s volleyball

Italy extended the United States’ Olympic-match losing streak to nine, beating the Americans in four sets in preliminary competition.

After Matej Cernic had seven kills in the third set to give his team a 2-1 edge, the Italians took the last four points of the final set to win, 25-21, 21-25, 25-17, 25-23.

Though still looking for that first Olympic gold, Italy clearly has established itself as an international power — winning six of the last seven meetings with the U.S., including a three-set victory at the World Cup last year.

The Americans are fifth in the latest international federation rankings.