BEIJING — The United States 4x200-meter freestyle relay team smashed the world record on Wednesday morning, helping Michael Phelps keep his gold-medal streak alive. The relay victory, in 6:58.56, helped Phelps earn his fifth medal of these Games, as he attempts to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one event, which Spitz set in 1972. Earlier in the night, Phelps had earned his fourth gold medal with a world-record performance in the 200-meter butterfly.
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Phelps swam the opening leg, giving his teammates a substantial advantage. Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay continued to add to the lead, becoming the first relay team to break the 7-minute barrier, and beating the old record of 7:03.24.
Competing in the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday morning at the Water Cube — an inhospitable place to anyone who has dared dive in with Phelps — he captured his fourth gold medal of the Beijing Olympics and continued his march toward a record eight golds. He had less than an hour to take the podium and then rest before his next event, the 4x200 freestyle relay, scheduled for 11:19 a.m. local time. Phelps finished in 1 minute 52.03 seconds, topping his world record of 1:52.09. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary won silver in 1:52.70, and Takeshi Matsuda of Japan took bronze in 1:52.97.
If Phelps remains unbeaten, on Saturday morning he will catch Mark Spitz, who holds the record with seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, and will pass him on Sunday morning in the 4x100 medley relay.
With each lap in the pool, Phelps has commanded more attention on the Olympic Green and around the world. NBC, the Olympics rights holder in the United States, knew such a run of golds would be great theater, so it prevailed on the Games’ organizers to hold swimming finals in the mornings in Beijing to capture live prime-time audiences in the States. The time of day has not appeared to matter to Phelps, who will be the heavy favorite in each of his remaining races.
In the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday, he left the field far behind and crushed his own year-old record. Sixteen months after becoming the first swimmer to crack the 1:44 barrier, he was the first to go under 1:43.