Outrage, accusations of cheating and bitter disappointment overshadowed the competition on a troubled night for the U.S. Olympic swim team Sunday. The misfortune came in a flood for a nation considered the most dominant in the sport on Day 3 of the Summer Games, a night the United States failed to win a single gold medal.
By the end of the evening, U.S. athletes and officials were explaining rather than celebrating, backpedaling from controversy and trying to figure out how to make Monday a better day.
A U.S. backstroker stoked the storm by charging a Japanese breaststroker with intentionally using an illegal stroke to deprive American Brendan Hansen of a gold medal victory.
The U.S. men's 4x100 relay team then posted its worst result in Olympic history, claiming only the bronze medal with Michael Phelps swimming the second leg.
The manager for three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr. capped the night by ripping the decision to place Phelps rather than Hall on the relay squad, saying it was grossly unfair to Hall and deprived the team of first place.
"I don't know how you can keep one of the greatest Olympians of all time off the relay in favor of a 19-year-old kid who had never even swum an Olympic relay before," Manager Dave Arluck said from the Olympic pool stands. "They used absolutely no logical swimming rationale when they put Phelps on that relay. . . . He did not deserve to be on that relay.
"It was wrong. Gary is the most decorated male Olympian at these Games. For them to take that experience away from him . . . it was a horrible decision."
Hall, unlike most of the U.S. team, did not attend the meet and was not available to comment. Phelps swam the second leg for the team in 48.74 seconds, which was one-hundredth of a second slower than Hall's leg in the morning preliminaries. The U.S. team was severely hurt by the 50.05 opening leg from Ian Crocker, who had a sore throat, according to U.S. men's team coach Eddie Reese.
Reese said Hall, a three-time Olympic relay gold medalist, would have bumped Phelps from the 400-relay squad had he swum a 48.3 or 48.4 leg in the morning.
"In '96, he had one of the fastest splits ever done," Reese said. "But as you go through the years, everybody changes. It's what you do here and now."
Hall, 29, had complained earlier that Phelps, who was seeking a record eight gold medals at these Olympics, was receiving special treatment as he had not even entered the 100 freestyle at the Olympic trials. The relay team is usually drawn from athletes who competed in that event.
"If they were going to be selective about it, they should have kept Ian Crocker off the relay," Arluck said. "Gary is a better relay swimmer than Ian Crocker. If you are subjective about one part of the relay, why not be subjective about the whole relay?"
Backstroker Aaron Peirsol set the mood at the pool shortly after advancing in the semifinals of the 100 backstroke. Moments after his race, Peirsol surprised a group of reporters by saying he could hardly concentrate in the water, he was so angry about the 100 breaststroke final. He claimed Kosuke Kitajima had performed a dolphin kick at the start instead of the mandatory breaststroke kick, an accusation later echoed by U.S. freestyler Jason Lezak.
Kitajima won in 1 minute 0.08 seconds. Hansen, the world record holder, touched the wall in 1:00.25.
"The whole stadium saw what happened at the start," Peirsol said. "Two-tenths of a second is what that was. . . . It's Brendan's gold medal, and there's nothing we can do about it. It breaks your heart, man. He knew what he was doing. It's cheating."
Reese said the United States could not appeal the result of the race because the no-call on Kitajima's swim was a judge's decision. U.S. athletes said they observed the alleged violation when they saw it on the underwater cameras.
"He definitely did a dolphin kick," said Lezak, adding that he believed Kitajima had committed the same violation last summer at the world championships. "It was real obvious."
When asked about the allegations, Kitajima said through an interpreter he didn't believe he had committed a violation. Hansen, too, declined to comment, saying didn't "agree with what [Peirsol] did."
He added: "If I would have won the race, nobody would have said anything. . . . Obviously, I need to swim faster."
So did the relay team, which had won every 4x100 Olympic gold until the last Summer Games in Sydney, when Australia produced an emotional upset. Sunday, it was a South African team led by Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling that topped the standings in world-record pace (3:13.17). Netherlands, anchored by Pieter van den Hoogenband (3:14.36), finished second.
The U.S. team of Crocker, Phelps, Walker and Lezak was no match. Walker and Lezak produced the best legs, 47.97 and 47.86, respectively. Australia also struggled, finishing sixth.
"To lose in the fashion we lost is not any fun at all," Reese said.
Asked what he would tell the U.S. swimmers when they assembled Monday, Reese responded without hesitation.
"Don't," he said, "do that again."