BEIJING &

Under other circumstances, Nastia Liukin would've been the star of the Olympics for the U.S. delegation today. After all, she was crowned the all-around champion of women's gymnastics, with a heck of a backstory about overcoming the exact obstacle that stopped her father 20 years ago.




Alas, her performance came on the same day Michael Phelps was in action.




Phelps ratcheted up the buzz surrounding him to yet another level by winning his sixth gold medal in as many tries, this time the 200-meter individual medley. The bigger news is that he's now on the cusp of catching Mark Spitz for the most medals ever won at a single Olympics, and still has a chance to bump the record to eight.




Phelps is in the midst of the greatest Olympics anyone has ever had. He's already branded himself the greatest Olympian by shattering the record for most career golds; this was his 12th, further separating him from Spitz and three others, who each have nine.




Watch Phelps during the award ceremony and you can tell it never gets old. But his pursuit is a grind. After collecting his latest prize, he was in such a rush to get to a preliminary swim for the 100 butterfly that he shoved the medal into a pocket of his warmup jacket.




"The next two races are pretty important," said Phelps, who matched his gold total won in Athens. "I have to conserve as much physical and emotional energy as I can."




The finals for the 100 butterfly &

his signature stroke &

is Saturday. His last event is the 400 medley relay Sunday. Then, immortality.




Liukin's victory likely will inspire a generation of youngsters to roll faster, tumble harder and fly higher, just like Mary Lou Retton did with her all-around win in 1984 and Carly Patterson did four years ago.




The difference this time is that Americans finished 1-2, with reigning world champion Shawn Johnson getting silver. And that's where Liukin's saga gets so interesting.




At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Valeri Liukin got silver in the men's all-around, losing to one of his Russian teammates. He won two individual golds, but never forgot that loss. History seemed to be repeating as the toughest foe in the world for his only child was her teammate.




In addition to the world championship, Johnson beat Liukin at the national championships and at the Olympic trials only a few weeks ago. But not when it counted most.




"There is nothing bigger or greater than this," Liukin said.




Today was the first great-weather day of the Beijing Olympics, the sky so clear that many first-time visitors discovered there are mountains around the city. Haze and clouds blocked them until a heavy rain Thursday gave the skies a good rinsing.




Just in time, too, because track and field got under way at the Bird's Nest.




Through 17 of the 18 events finishing today, the United States led the medal count with 45 and China was next with 41.




The American count was boosted by shooter Jason Turner getting moved up from fourth to bronze after a North Korea shooter failed a drug test and was stripped of his third-place finish in 10-meter air pistol. Kim Jong Su also lost a silver medal in the 50-meter pistol. A Vietnamese gymnast also was caught doping, making it three ousted athletes so far.




In the gold chase, the hosts still set the pace with 26, more than the total prizes for every other delegation but the Americans. The U.S. has 14 golds, Phelps accounting for nearly half.




Swimming




Phelps wasn't the only American to set a world record Friday.




Ryan Lochte did it in the 200-meter backstroke and Rebecca Soni took the 200 breaststroke. Then Lochte faced a double-whammy &

another race 29 minutes later, and a foe named Phelps. He wound up with bronze, with the silver going to Hungary's Lazslo Cseh, another guy with a hard-luck story. Cseh has finished second in three straight races, trailing Phelps each time.




Soni beat Australia's Leisel Jones and took away the record Jones had held for 21/2 years, an eon considering how quickly standards are dropping at this meet. (Phelps' win made it 21 world records set at the Water Cube.)




Soni had already claimed a surprising silver behind Jones in the 100, a race she entered only because Jessica Hardy failed a doping test at the U.S. trials and was dropped from the team.




American Natalie Coughlin won bronze in the 100 freestyle, her fifth medal of these games with the medley relay still to go.




"I'm very proud of how I've handled the heavier workload," she said.




Softball




Turns out, the U.S. women are as dominant as ever.




First they set an Olympic record with four homers in a 7-0 victory over Japan. Then they resumed a rain-stopped game against Canada, trailing 1-0. After being five outs from losing, they wound up winning by the lopsided score of 8-1.




The Americans broke the game open with four runs in the sixth, helped by two errors by Canadian shortstop Jennifer Salling, and a wild pitch and hit batter by Canada's Dione Meier.




In other games, Australia beat Taiwan 3-1 and Venezuela beat the Netherlands 8-0.




Women's basketball




The U.S. women started slowly, then got clicking, pounding Spain 93-55. Tina Thompson scored nine of her 17 points during a game-breaking 20-5 run in the third quarter and Lisa Leslie added 14 points and 11 rebounds.




With the win, the U.S. has 29 straight victories in Olympic contests. The last loss was to the Unified team in the 1992 semifinals.




In other games Friday, Australia topped Latvia 96-73, Russia edged Brazil 74-64, the Czech Republic beat New Zealand 90-59, and China routed Mali 69-48.




Tennis




An American won't win the men's singles title.




James Blake, the last hope left, lost to Fernando Gonzalez. The Chilean blew four match points before winning 6-4, 5-7, 11-9, to advance to the gold-medal match. He'll play the winner of the other semifinal, between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokavic. Four years ago, Gonzalez was part of the doubles team that won Chile's first gold medal in any sport.




New women's No. — Jelena Jankovic lost in the quarterfinals to No. 6 Dinara Safina, who will play China's Li Na in the semifinals. The other semi will pit Russians Elena Dementieva and No. 9 Vera Zvonareva.




Roger Federer and the Williams sisters, who lost their shot at the singles title Thursday, all advanced in doubles. But Americans Lindsay Davenport and Liezel Huber lost in the quarterfinals to Anabel Medina Garriguez and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain.




Baseball




The U.S. baseball team is in trouble. They fell to 1-2, lost a key player to an injury and have angered the mighty Cubans by accusing them of dirty play after losing to them 5-4 in 11 innings.




In their first game under a wacky extra-inning format &

from the 11th on, teams automatically get runners on first and second and can start anywhere in the batting order &

the Americans gave up two runs in the top of the inning, then fell one shy in the bottom. The last at-bat started with Jayson Nix squaring to bunt and fouling the pitch off his left eye.




Nix later underwent microsurgery to close about a 2-inch wound above his eye and will not play again in China.




Shooting




The Emmons family picked up another medal. This time, it was hubby Matt getting silver in the 50-meter prone, an event he won four years ago. His wife, Katerina, who shoots for the Czech Republic, has a gold and a silver from these games.




Also, American Vincent Hancock was leading after the first day of men's skeet qualifications.




Women's volleyball




With China's president watching, the U.S. team coached by former Chinese star Jenny Lang Ping knocked off the hosts in five sets. The Americans are 3-2 overall, in good shape to advance. China fell to 2-2.




Women's soccer




Natasha Kai scored on a header in extra time, sending the defending champion Americans into the semifinals with a 2-1 victory over Canada. The game was suspended for one hour and 40 minutes during the first half because of lightning.




Brazil advanced with a 2-1 win over Norway.




Boxing




Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko continues making a name for himself, beating his second medal-caliber foe in as many fights. His next fight will be against Li Yang, another Chinese winner.




China has seven boxers still in the tournament amid complaints from a handful of fighters about judges favoring the home nation.




Russian lightweight Alexey Tishchenko stopped his powerful nation's slide with an 11-3 win over Australia's Anthony Little. Russia, considered the overall favorite, has just six boxers left in the Olympic field, but they include two world champions and Tishchenko, a featherweight gold medalist in Athens who moved up 7 pounds for Beijing.




Cuba kept nine boxers in the tournament with lightweight Yordenis Ugas' 10-2 victory over Italy's Domenico Valentino.




Canoe-kayak




Look out for the Slovaks on the whitewater course.




Twins Pavol and Peter Hochschorner won their third straight gold medal in double canoe slalom and countrywoman Elena Kaliska won the women's single kayak slalom for her second straight gold in the event.




"I think it's nice, but it's the same," Pavol Hochschorner said.




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Archery




When South Korean Park Kyung-mo got an 8 on his next-to-last shot, tying the finals, Ukraine's Viktor Ruban responded with a perfect 10. Park could've forced a shoot-off with a perfect score of his own, but he was a few millimeters wide, giving Ruban the gold.




American Vic Wunderle, who took silver in 2000, knocked off the reigning champion to get to the quarterfinals, but didn't get a medal.




"All in all, I had a good competition," he said. "It hadn't been my best season, but I saved my best performance for the games."




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Weightlifting




China got its seventh and eighth gold medals in weightlifting, with Lu Yong winning the fourth by a man and Cao Lei taking the fourth for a woman.




"We have proved our strength," Cao said.




Kendrick Farris set two U.S. records in the men's 85-kilogram division, but had to settle for eighth place.




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Cycling




It was a big day for Britain, with the British beating France for the gold in men's team sprint and Bradley Wiggins setting an Olympic record in qualifying for the 4,000-meter individual pursuit.




American Taylor Phinney &

the 18-year-old son of 1984 gold medalist Connie Carpenter-Phinney and '84 bronze medalist Davis Phinney &

advanced in the pursuit race with his parents watching from the front row.




"It is just another race and I like to think of it that way," Taylor Phinney said. "But it's also way bigger than I thought it would be."




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Judo




China's Tong Wen won a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Athens champion Maki Tsukada to take the women's heavyweight title and deny Japan a golden double on the final day of competition.




Japan's Satoshi Ishii, making his Olympic debut, defeated Uzbekistan's Abdullo Tangriev to win the men's over 100-kg.




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Sailing




British star Ben Ainslie was assured his fourth medal when he stretched his overall Finn class lead over American Zach Railey going into Saturday's medal race. Even if he were disqualified in the final race, his point total would assure him at least a silver medal.




In the Yngling class, the Dutch team of Mandy Mulder, Annemieke Bes and Merel Witteveen lead all the way in Friday's race, scoring a win that brings them within one point of the leaders, Britons Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson. That means Saturday's final will be a British-Dutch match race for gold, with the remaining boats in a scramble for bronze.




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Badminton




Du Jing and Yu Yang won China's first-ever gold in badminton, taking women's doubles over a South Korean team. Another Chinese tandem got the bronze, beating a Japanese duo that knocked off the top-seeded, defending Olympic champions.




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Diving




China's Phelp-ian run to eight gold medals still looks good, with Guo Jingjing leading after the women's 3-meter springboard preliminaries.




Guo, who already successfully defended her synchronized springboard title with partner Wu Minxia, is in position to claim her second consecutive Olympic 3-meter individual title.




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Fencing




France won the team gold in men's epee for a second straight Olympics, easily defeating Poland in the title bout. Poland still won its first medal in the event since 1980.




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Table tennis




Bronze is still a possibility for the U.S. women's team, which knocked off Romania 3-1 and moved into a semifinal. The American team features two retired members of the Chinese national squad who resurrected their careers after immigrating to the United States.




China and Singapore will slug it out for gold.