Pressure on to turn British investment into Olympic gold
LONDON (Reuters) - The venues are ready, the rain clouds have moved away and the hype is coming to the boil -- now comes the hard part for the 542-strong British team tasked with delivering a stash of Olympic gold.
An outlay of 9 billion pounds ($14 billion) to bring the Olympics back to London for the first time since 1948 has provoked plenty of public cynicism since 2005.
However, that will all be blown away if Britain's finest sportsmen and women get it right at the track, the pool, velodrome and elsewhere over the next few weeks.
Fourth-place in the medals table in Beijing exceeded expectations but that is now being seen as the benchmark for the biggest British Olympic team ever assembled.
At the 2008 Olympics Britain won 47 medals, 19 of them gold, across 11 sports.
For the London Games, UK Sport, the body that funds the elite, has raised the bar and set a minimum target of 48 and an upper level of 70.
"I think it's reasonable to expect that we will do better than we did in Beijing in terms of number of medals and number of gold medals," former British oarsman Matthew Pinsent, who won four gold medals from four Olympics, told Reuters.
"I think that in terms of the overall British haul of medals a lot will be depend on the big five sports -- the rowers, the sailors, the swimmers, cyclists and the track and field team."
However, he warned that some may crack under the pressure.
"I think that broadly speaking Britain is on course for a very good Games because it's at home, but that will also raise the pressure levels," he said.
"There will be some athletes who suffer because of that and buckle under it. If that does happen I hope that they are not criticized too much."
The worst-case scenario for a home nation is a long wait for a first gold medal, but going by the Olympic schedule it could not have worked out better for Britain.
Bradley Wiggins, who became Britain's first Tour de France champion on Sunday, will be joined by Mark Cavendish in the men's road race - with both among the favorites to deliver gold the day after the opening ceremony.
Nicole Cooke will then try to defend her title in the women's road race on Sunday before the focus shifts to the track team led by Chris Hoy, winner of three golds in Beijing where the British team proved virtually unstoppable.
Britain could also make a splash in the pool in the first week with Rebecca Adlington, who went from obscurity to a sporting phenomenon after winning the 400m and 800m freestyle in Beijing, set to lead the way.
"I think she is in the best shape of her life," British swimming's performance director Michael Scott said in the build-up to the Games.
No one will feel the weight of expectation more than the poster girl of the British team, heptathlete Jessica Ennis.
The 2009 world champion is one of the home nation's best hopes for gold inside the showpiece Olympic stadium, along with triple jumper Phillips Idowu, reigning Olympic women's 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu and distance runner Mo Farah.
"Because of the expectation and pressure, I think anything but gold, everyone would view that as a failure and I'm aware of that," Ennis, whose battle with world champion Tatyana Chernova and world indoor champion Nataliya Dobrynska, could be one of the highlights of the Games, said last week.
"It's been such a huge build-up for all of us and I'm feeling ready to get on with it now. It's been a great year so far and I just want to put the icing on the cake."
Another runner who could make a name for herself is Perri Shakes-Drayton, a 400m hurdler who grew up just down the road from the Olympic Park in east London.
In winning this month's London Diamond League meeting with a personal best she has suddenly entered medal contention.
Experienced Olympians such as Ben Ainslie, a three-times sailing gold medalist, and any number of rowers are expected to deliver. As will diver Tom Daley four years after he swapped his school books for swimming trunks in China.
It cannot be all plain sailing for the hosts and there are some events where a medal will be well out of reach, but the Olympics will at least give some of the country's minority sports the chance to share the spotlight.
Britain will field men's and women's volleyball and handball teams for the first time at the Olympics while water polo will have British interest for the first time in 56 years.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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