LONDON — On the first night of swimming, the big story was Michael Phelps failing to medal. But the biggest winner was China. Ye Shiwen, 16, set a world record in the women's 400-meter individual medley, and Sun Yang won the men's 400 freestyle in Olympic record time.
Also, Natalie Coughlin got a bronze medal as part of the U.S. 400 freestyle relay team, tying fellow swimmers Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated U.S. female Olympians in any sport. Australia captured gold in the relay with an Olympic record, and South Korea's Park Tae-hwan won silver in the men's 400, the 2008 gold medalist fortunate even to take part after initially being disqualified for a false start in the morning preliminaries.
Ye's winning time of 4 minutes, 28.43 seconds smashed the world record of 4:29.45 set by Stephanie Rice of Australia at the 2008 Olympics, and it was only the third mark to fall since high-tech body suits were banned at the end of 2009.
To show how much has changed since 2008, Rice could do no better than sixth Saturday. But it was still a surprise to see the ease with which Ye wrested command of the race from the favorite, American Elizabeth Beisel of Florida, in the closing freestyle leg. Beisel was second in 4:31.27, Li Xuanxu of China third.
Sun took gold in 3:40.14, just off the Olympic mark of 3:40.07 by Germany's Paul Biedermann in a rubberized suit three years ago. When it was done, Sun propped himself on the lane rope, pumping his fist and splashing the water. Peter Vanderkaay of the United States won the bronze.
Park was disqualified for a false start after leading his heat in the morning. However, South Korea filed a protest, which was rejected, then appealed to the sport's governing, which ruled in Park's favor after a video review.
Australia won the relay with an Olympic record of 3:33.15, rallying to pass the Americans and hold off the fast-charging Netherlands.
The Americans got off to a blistering start with Missy Franklin swimming leadoff under world-record pace. They were still ahead after Jessica Hardy went next. But the Australians rallied on the third 100 and held on at the end.
Coughlin, 29, swam in the morning prelims, then was reduced to the role of cheerleader in the evening as the Americans went with Franklin — set to swim seven races in all — Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt. Everyone who swims on a relay gets a medal, though.
"I was a little bit disappointed just because I tend to get better as the meet progresses," Coughlin said, "but I don't envy the coaches, what they had to go through this morning. They really weighed the decision, and I think they made a good one."
Coughlin, whose six medals in 2008 were the most by an American woman at one Olympics, didn't qualify for an individual event in London. She finished sixth in the 100 free at the Olympic trials to put herself in the relay mix.
U.S. women's coach Teri McKeever, who is also Coughlin's personal coach, considered each swimmer's split times and their relay exchanges in deciding to leave Coughlin out.
"As the head coach, I think I made the right decision," McKeever said. "As her coach, it was difficult."