Beijing, Aug 8: Michael Phelps opens his quest for an unprecedented eight Olympic gold medals on Saturday in an event which might turn out to be his toughest challenge.
Phelps has long been master of the 400 metres individual medley but, with fellow American Ryan Lochte edging ever closer, he acknowledges it will be one of the hardest races to win as he embarks on a schedule aimed at 17 starts in nine days. "They're all going to be hard. With so many races I think one of the hardest will be one of the first, the 400 IM," he said this week as he looks to exceed the seven golds won by Mark Spitz in 1972. Phelps lowered the 400 medley world record for the seventh time at the U.S. trials in June but Lochte was less than a second adrift and also inside the old world mark.
Lochte, twice a silver medallist behind Phelps at the 2007 world championships, would dearly love to beat him for once.
"I wouldn't mind at all. I wish him all the best, he is my friend, but if he doesn't do it, it means I did something right," Lochte said.
Grant Hackett, whose big goal is a unique third Olympic 1,500 metres freestyle title, enters the evening heats action in the Water Cube among the favourites to succeed fellow Australian Ian Thorpe as Olympic 400 freestyle champion.
Hackett, silver medallist behind the now-retired Thorpe in 2004, holds this year's fastest time but faces tough competition from Park Tae-hwan, South Korea's first world champion, Americans Larsen Jensen and Peter Vanderkaay and U.S.-based Tunisian Oussama Mellouli, back from suspension having lost world gold and silver medals after testing positive for an amphetamine.