China smash record to win women's 4x200m free gold
Chinese quartet surprise as selection gambles backfire for favourites Australia
China's 4x200m freestyle relay team thought beating Canada to win bronze was a realistic target ahead of the women's final yesterday, so claiming gold in a world-record time was beyond their wildest expectations.
The team of Zhang Yufei, who broke the Olympic record to win the 200m butterfly gold an hour earlier, Yang Junxuan, Tang Muhan and Li Bingjie took an early lead and fought hard to hold it, with Li fighting off a surging Katie Ledecky to keep ahead of the United States and win in 7:40.33.
The Americans clocked 7:40.73 to win silver ahead of hot favourites Australia in 7:41.29.
Canada finished fourth.
It was the first time neither Australia nor the US have won gold since the event was introduced at the Olympics in 1996.
But the top three teams all finished under the previous world mark of 7:41.50, which the Australians set in 2019.
"We didn't expect to win the race because the Americans and Australians are so strong," said Zhang.
"The team strategy was to come third. Our plan was to beat the Canadian team for third place. That's what we planned for."
Zhang, 23, found out she had to swim in the relay only after clocking a Games mark of 2min 3.86sec in the 200m fly, with Americans Regan Smith (2:05.30) and Hali Flickinger (2:06.65) behind her.
Her effort had inspired China's relay team to victory, said teammate Li Bingjie, who was also asked how many times they had been drug-tested over the past year.
"Our drug tests have never stopped," she said. "According to statistics, Chinese athletes are subject to the largest number of drug tests in the world."
Meanwhile, Australian officials defended accusations of arrogance as their relay selection backfired.
The favourites picked a completely different quartet from the heats, which they had won, allowing more members of the team to win medals.
They also put 200m and 400m freestyle gold medallist Ariarne Titmus, 20, on the first leg instead of the last.
The objective was possibly to give her a chance to break an individual world record.
The rules state that split times for those in second, third and fourth legs are not valid.
But the gambles failed. Titmus was slower than China's Yang Junxuan over the first leg, and the favourites eventually settled for bronze.
Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, a five-time Olympic champion, questioned the order in which the swimmers were lined up.
Australia coach Dean Boxall insisted that they did not underestimate the opposition.
Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madison Wilson and Leah Neale were all brought in for the final, with 17-year-old starlet Mollie O'Callaghan left out.
O'Callaghan broke the junior world record in qualifying with a 1:55.11, which was faster than McKeon, Wilson and Neale all managed in the final.
Head coach Rohan Taylor said O'Callaghan was tired after the heats on Wednesday night.
"There's no guarantee of her going quicker when we have fresh... athletes to go in," he said. "We took that strategy." - AFP, REUTERS