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Phelps upstaged again as Agnel's late dash hands France gold

On a night of extraordinary competition the fast men of France saved the best for last, snatching a piece of Olympic history thanks to the long arm of Yannick Agnel. For the second night in succession Michael Phelps was upstaged, only this time so was Ryan Lochte.

For three of the four legs of the 4 x 100m freestyle relay it was a two-nation race, the expected and much-hyped Australian quartet going stroke for stroke with the United States. This was how it was supposed to be. But then came Agnel's dramatic late dash and France had their second gold of a tumultuous evening.

The shorter freestyle relay is the macho event of the programme and it is also America's event. Only once in the previous seven Games had the US failed to claim the title – in all they had won eight of the 10 times it has been staged at the Games – and at the last two Olympics they have claimed it in world-record time.

The last country to interrupt their dominance were Australia, a dozen years ago on a memorable night in the Sydney pool when Ian Thorpe drove the home nation to victory and sparked wild celebration. Australia had fancied their chances coming to London. The shorter freestyle events have not been one of their traditional strengths but a new generation of speed men, complete with requisite Aussie monikers, conjured hopes of another famous green-and-gold triumph. The Australia quartet were tastefully named the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" with "the Missile" and "the Rocket", respectively James Magnussen and James Roberts, chosen to spearhead their hopes and sent off to London on a wave of bravado.

Australian officials were not happy that a name that had been bandied around the team as an in-joke has accompanied them around the world. They feared it would spark an American reaction much as the "smash them like guitars" line uttered by Gary Hall ahead of Sydney inspired Thorpe's quartet.

In the world championships in Shanghai last year, less than a second separated the top three, the French slipped between them to snatch silver, with Magnussen's electric opening leg – the quickest recorded in a textile suit – proving the difference. An appreciation of the task facing the US was apparent from the quartet they sent out. Into the line-up from the morning's heats came Phelps and Lochte.

Magnussen flew out again but this time Nathan Adrian matched him and when Phelps stormed a body length ahead of Matt Targett, the Chertsey-born Aussie, it looked like gold No15 was heading for Phelps' mantelpiece.

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But the French were always there and Agnel produced a ferocious finale in a thrilling last 100m with Lochte. The American took the lead with one of his trademark turns into the final length but the 20-year-old is a rising star of the pool – his clash with Magnussen in the 100m free will be one to savour (from a safe distance) – and his finish was ice cool. The Australians meanwhile faded badly. They were passed by Russia and shoved out of the medals.

It is still another medal for Phelps – his first-ever silver. He now sits one behind the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian in history. He has 17 to Latynina's 18. The difference though is that 14 of Phelps' are gold compared to half of Latynina's collection.

It was an encouraging swim for Phelps and a marked improvement on his sluggish display on Saturday night when he could only finish fourth in the 400m individual medley. It is far too early to start writing off the greatest Olympian.

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