U.S. humbles China in basketball; Phelps shines
BEIJING (Reuters) - The millionaire stars of the U.S. basketball team swept past hosts China in the showcase match-up of the Olympics, watched by tens of millions on Chinese television and cheered on by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Talismanic giant Yao Ming, flag carrier for China at the opening ceremony, could not protect his colleagues from the speed and power of the NBA professionals.
Ming, who plays with the Houston Rockets, scored 13 points in the 101-70 loss to the U.S. in what was billed as the most watched basketball game in history.
Bush and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, huddled with the U.S. team ahead of the game to wish them luck.
"What's up, pops?" NBA scoring champion LeBron James quipped to Bush's ageing father.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, the NBA's Most Valuable Player, won a huge cheer from the star-dazzled home supporters but the loudest shout from the raucous 16,000 crowd was for Ming, China's favourite athlete along with 110m hurdler Liu Xiang.
The U.S. team is still smarting from winning only bronze at Athens in 2004 and has nicknamed itself the "Redeem Team". They have joked they will be unable to return home without the gold.
The Americans will face a tougher test in their other Preliminary Group B matches against world champions Spain and a tough Greece side that stunned them in the world championship semi-finals in 2006.
Bush had earlier watched U.S. swimming sensation Michael Phelps demolish his own world record in a winning start to his bid for an unprecedented eight golds in a single Olympics.
His splash of speed lit up the Games, eclipsing worries over security, heat, air pollution and intolerance of dissent that marked the Olympic build-up and lingered into the first day.
Thunderstorms cleansed Beijing's smog-filled air on Sunday, forcing delays to the rowing and tennis but easing concerns health and performance could be affected by suffocating heat.
THRILLS AND CHILLS
Listening to hip-hop on headphones as he walked to the blocks, Phelps went on to win the 400 metres individual medley at China's futuristic and full-to-capacity Water Cube.
His time was 1.41 seconds quicker than a previous best he set just six weeks ago.
"I'm pretty happy with that ... it was all adrenaline," said Phelps, calling a thumbs-up by Bush in the stands "pretty cool".
Even if Phelps wins only half his eight race competitions, he will hold more Olympic gold medals than any other athlete.
But the 23-year-old looks in great shape to at least match his six golds at Athens in 2004 and then beat Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven wins at one Games.
Australia's Stephanie Rice followed Phelps with a world record of her own in the women's 400 individual medley.
The U.S. broke the world record in the men's 100 freestyle relay heats. Phelps will be part of the team for Monday's final.
China's foremost female athlete, Guo Jingjing, dubbed the supermodel of the springboard for her film star looks, warmed home crowd hearts with a smooth victory in the synchronised three-metre diving.
Britain won their first gold of the Games in the women's cycling road race. Nicole Cooke triumphed in surprisingly cold, wet and slippery conditions on the route from Beijing's Forbidden City imperial palace complex to the Great Wall.
The weather could not have been more different from the previous day when one-third of the men dropped out of the road race amid suffocating heat and humidity. More rain is forecast for Monday in a relief for athletes complaining of the heat.
ATTACKS FAR AND NEAR
In distant western China suspected Muslim separatists and suicide bombers launched a dozen attacks that left 11 people dead in blasts and a subsequent shootout with police.
It was the second set of deadly attacks in a week in restive Xinjiang, where China says militants are agitating for an independent homeland for the region's majority Muslim Uighurs.
Wang Wei, secretary of the Beijing Games organising committee, said Xinjiang militants "want to use the platform of the Olympics to amplify the effects" of their attacks.
Xinjiang is more than 3,000 km from Beijing but Olympic organisers have said separatist groups are among the main threats to the Games.
A tight security blanket around Beijing has been labelled oppressive by critics who see it as a clampdown to prevent potentially embarrassing protests.
The 100,000 security force lining the roads and venues was unable to stop a Chinese man stabbing to death the father-in-law of the U.S. men's volleyball coach at a tourist spot on Saturday.
The assailant then committed suicide. Organisers said the attack was a one-off and Beijing was still safe. The "devastated" American volleyball team won their opening match on Sunday against Venezuela without their coach Hugh McCutcheon.
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