Phelps wins gold medal number five
ATHENS, Greece -- Michael Phelps has won a fifth gold to claim a place alongside Mark Spitz as one of the greatest swimmers in Olympic history.
With Spitz watching from the stands, Phelps beat his American team mate Ian Crocker by just four-hundredths of a second to win his fourth individual gold and his seventh medal overall.
Spitz won seven golds, four individual, at Munich in 1972 and while Phelps could not match that feat, he is likely to take his tally here to eight medals after Saturday's medley relay final without swimming a stroke.
"The things I am doing right now I have dreamt about my whole life," said Phelps.
Another American, Matt Biondi, also won seven swimming medals at Seoul in 1988, but of his five golds only two came in individual events.
Phelps earned the right to swim the butterfly leg after winning the 100m final on Friday but later announced he would give up his spot to Crocker.
Phelps will still earn a medal if the Americans finish in the top three because he swam in the relay heats.
"I wanted to give him another chance," Phelps said.
Crocker said: "I feel it's a huge gift to accept but it really makes me want to tear up the pool."
Crocker, who beat Phelps to win the world title in Barcelona and took the world record from him at the same time, wanted to take charge from the start and went out fast down the first length, turning inside world record pace at the 50 in 23.59, more than half a second clear of the field.
Phelps was back in fifth place at the turn in 24.36 but accelerated down the return length as it developed into a duel between the two Americans.
Crocker led all the way until the final touch when Phelps stretched home with Crocker needing to complete one more stroke.
Phelps clocked 51.25 seconds, inside the Olympic record of 51.61 he posted in Thursday's semi-finals but well outside Crocker's 50.76 world mark set last month.
Crocker, who was suffering from a sore throat last weekend when the U.S. had to settle for third in the 4x100 freestyle relay, was a mere 0.04 seconds adrift in 51.29.
World bronze medallist Andriy Serdinov of Ukraine, who broke the world record in the world championship semi-finals last year only for the time to be bettered by Phelps in the next semi-final, finished strongly close behind the Americans to take another bronze in a European record 51.36.
Phelps had already won the 200 and 400 individual medley and 200 butterfly and 4x200 freestyle relay golds. He also collected bronzes in the 200 freestyle and 4x100 freestyle relay.
Coventry makes history for Zimbabwe
Meanwhile, Kirsty Coventry won the women's 200m backstroke final to become the first Zimbabwean to win an Olympic swimming gold medal.
The 20-year-old led all the way to finish first in a time of two minutes 09.19 seconds, breaking the African record she set in Thursday's semi-final.
Stanislava Komarova of Russia collected the silver in 2:09.72 while the bronze was shared by Reiko Nakamura of Japan and Antje Buschschulte of Germany who both swam 2:09.88.
Coventry went into the final as the second fastest qualifier but stamped her authority on the race from the start.
She opened up a narrow lead over Buschschulte and gradually pulled away from the field to win by half a body length.
Buschschulte faded on the last lap but managed to hold on to third place, albeit shared with Nakamura.
Coventry joined South African Penny Heyns as the only Africans to win individual gold medals in swimming at the Olympics.
Her gold also gave her a full set of medals in Athens after she won silver in the 100m back and bronze in the 200m individual medley.
Hall retains his title
Flambouyant American Gary Hall, who shared gold in the 50 meters freestyle four years ago, became sole owner of the Olympic title for the one-length sprint, but it was almost as close as Sydney 2000.
The 29-year-old, joint champion with compatriot Anthony Ervin in Sydney, won by the merest 0.01 seconds from Croatia's Duje Draganja.
Hall, silver medallist behind Alexander Popov at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, hurtled home in lane two in 21.93 while, across the pool in lane eight, Draganja grabbed the silver in 21.94.
Roland Schoeman of South Africa took bronze in 22.02 to complete his set of Athens medals.
Schoeman led off South Africa's victorious 4x100 freestyle relay on Sunday and was silver medallist behind Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in Wednesday's 100 meter freestyle.
Reigning world champion Alexander Popov, Hall's nemesis, and Olympic and world bronze medallist van den Hoogenband both failed reach the semi-finals.
Russia's Popov, contesting his fourth and last Games at the age of 32, achieved a unique sprint freestyle 'double double', winning both 50 and 100m titles at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
Popov consigned Hall to silver medals in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the 1994 world championships and 1996 Olympics but now Hall is top man in swimming's shortest race.
Shabata snatches late victory
Japan's Ai Shibata wore down French teenager Laure Manaudou to win the women's 800 meters freestyle gold.
Manaudou looked to have her second gold in the bag when she opened up a big lead over the field but did not count on the finishing burst of Shibata.
The 22-year-old Japanese woman began to close in on Manaudou over the final 300 meters and finally got her nose in front turning for the last lap.
She pulled half a body length in front but the Frenchwoman fought back and the pair went stroke for stroke with Shibata just winning the sprint to the line.
She won in a time of eight minutes 24.54 seconds, less than a second outside the Asian record she set earlier this year.
Manaudou took the silver in 8:24.96, while American Diana Munz grabbed the bronze in 8:26.61.
Manaudou, who also won a bronze in 100 backstroke at the Athens Games, was the favorite to win the longest race on the women's programme after she became the first Frenchwoman to win an Olympic swimming title with victory in the 400 freestyle on Sunday.
She was just two seconds off world record pace at the halfway stage and almost two and a half seconds off world record pace but her fast pace began to take its toll.
Shibata provided Japan with their third gold medal in swimming at Athens after Kosuke Kitajima won the men's breaststroke double.
Thorpe misses out
Ian Thorpe's games came to an abrupt and disappointing end as his Australian team-mates unexpectedly failed to qualify for final of the 4x100m medley relay.
While the superstar was kept in reserve, Matt Welsh, Jim Piper, Adam Pine and Michael Klim could only post the ninth fastest time.
That means Thorpe, who would have swum the relay final on Saturday, will finish his Games campaign with four medals, including two gold.
He took top honors in the 200m and 400m freestyle, a silver in the 4x200m free relay and bronze in the 100m free.
Even without a medal from the medley relay, Thorpe's accomplishments in Athens made him Australia's most successful Olympian.
With his fifth career Olympic gold in the 200m free, Thorpe surpassed athlete Betty Cuthbert and swimmers Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser for the most by an Australian.
In two Olympics, Thorpe has nabbed five gold, three silver and a bronze.
Australian head coach Leigh Nugent said Welsh's lead-off backstroke leg in the relay heats was a key to the failure for Australia, which in Sydney claimed silver behind the United States.
"That really started the rot," Nugent said. "The front end of our swim just wasn't strong enough."