Though unable to match the United States in swimming or on the track, China might still top the overall medals' table. It had its gymnasts and divers to thank for the latest successes that kept the hosts in the lead with 17 golds.
But day five of the Olympics [ Images ] belonged to Phelps.
The 23-year-old swimmer's fifth win at Beijing's [ Images ] Water Cube brought his career tally to an unprecedented 11 Olympic golds.
That took him past an elite group.
Phelps' goggles filled with water during the men's 200 metres butterfly, yet he still broke his own world record. "Under the circumstances, it's not a bad result," was his laconic reaction.
An hour later, he joined team mates to win the men's 200 freestyle relay. They knocked four seconds off the previous best.
Phelps is now within reach of Spitz's record of seven golds at one Games. With each of his golds in this Games coming in record times, he is also chasing Spitz's achievement of winning each of the 1972 titles in world best times.
The Americans have 10 Beijing golds so far but expect to come back strongly when track-and-field events start on Friday. South Korea have five, while Italy [ Images ], Australia [ Images ] and Germany [ Images ] have four.
Cheered like pop stars by flag-waving fans, China's petite young gymnasts upstaged a mistake-prone United States to take their first Olympic women's team title.
Senior US team member Alicia Sacramone stumbled off the beam after fluffing her mount, then fell on her back during her floor exercise. Appalled at her mistakes, she hurried down the stairs and was close to tears. The U.S. team took silver.
"I let my nerves get to me," Sacramone said.
Suspicious that the Chinese girls may be under the age limit of 16, journalists peppered them with trick questions.
One was asked her Chinese zodiac animal, another what she did on her 15th birthday. But none of the girls tripped up.
WATER CUBE THRILLS AGAIN
The futuristic, colour-changing Water Cube has delighted spectators for both its architecture and the events inside.
Another six world records were broken there on Wednesday.
France's [ Images ] Alain Bernard briefly took Eamon Sullivan's world record in the 100 freestyle semi-finals but the Australian recaptured it less than five minutes later.
Italy's Federica Pellegrini [ Images ] broke the women's 200 freestyle record to take gold. Australia's Stephanie Rice won her second gold in record time in the 200 individual medley.
China's divers brought more honour to the hosts.
Wang Feng and Qin Kai scored several perfect 10s in their first jump and went on to take gold in the men's 3 metre springboard, giving China a clean sweep of synchronised diving.
In weightlifting, Liu Chunhong broke several world records on her way to bringing China gold in the women's 69kg class. After her victory, she gave a clue as to the rigours of China's Soviet-style training system for sportsmen.
"What I want to do most is spend time with my parents, because since the last Olympics until now I've only spent six days with them," she said.
China was criticised for going too far in efforts to stage a successful Games after organisers said they used a pretty stand-in to lip-synch the voice of a less photogenic 7-year-old girl singer at the opening ceremony.
Yang Peiyi's voice but not face were used for an angelic rendition of "Ode to the Motherland" at Friday's opening extravaganza "because of her external appearance," ceremony director Chen Qigang told state television.
"It was for the national interest," he said of a technique well practised in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Bloggers were up in arms. "Something about passing over a child for crooked teeth just seems, well, wrong," one wrote.
Also striking a jarring note, two doping cases came to light.
Bulgaria said it had sent home its men's volleyball captain Plamen Konstantinov after pre-Games controls showed he was close to anti-doping limits. A Taiwanese baseball player tested positive in pre-Games checks, Olympics chiefs also said.
Happily for China though, sports have now overshadowed an avalanche of pre-Games criticism over human rights. Protesters still lurk, however, and police dragged away five pro-free Tibet [ Images ] protesters, from the United States, at a park on Wednesday.