No predictions but U.S. eyeing top Olympic spot

LONDON Wed Jul 25, 2012 5:05pm EDT

Michael Phelps of the U.S. swimming team reacts during a promotional event in London July 25, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Michael Phelps of the U.S. swimming team reacts during a promotional event in London July 25, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

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LONDON (Reuters) - The United States may routinely issue forecasts for the number of jobs being created or home sales but there will be no bold predictions about the number of medals American athletes might win at the London Olympics.

The U.S. has led the overall medal count at the Summer Games dating back to the 1996 Atlanta Games, and while United States Olympic Committee (USOC) officials are reluctant to put a number on their goal for London the target remains the same - top spot.

"I look at the USA, not just soccer, I look at Team USA from track, gymnastics from anything. You see the American flag I feel like you get labeled a favorite," women's soccer player Lauren Cheney said during the USOC media summit. "A target is always going to be on our backs. We do embrace it."

Led by medal-machine Michael Phelps, the American national anthem is sure to get plenty of playtime during the July 27-August 12 London Games but it may not be a chart topper.

China, which was at the center of a political row this month for manufacturing the U.S. Olympic team's outfits while American unemployment hovers just above 8 percent, could deliver another blow to the United States by taking over top spot.

The U.S. team took home 110 total medals at the 2008 Beijing Games but it was China, riding a wave of support from the home crowd, that harvested the most golds with 51 while the U.S. team went home with 36, nearly a quarter of those coming from Phelps.

'BADGE OF HONOUR'

The U.S. are sending 530 athletes to London as part of a massive squad that will feature, for the first time, more women than men and compete in 25 of the 38 disciplines.

Among the ranks are reformed drug cheats, unknowns marching alongside the rich and famous, mothers and fathers, the young (15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky) and old (54-year-old equestrian rider Karen O'Connor), a Dream Team and big dreamers all expected to contribute to the U.S. cause.

"American kids understand American teams, and they have a concept as to what that means when you're a part of a group," said Frank Busch, national director of the U.S. swim team. "When you ask an athlete that's trying to strive for something about sacrifice, they wear it as a badge of honor."

The pool and track will again provide the foundation for American efforts.

Phelps, winner of eight golds in Beijing, has set himself an ambitious swan song to Olympic competition qualifying for five individual events and three relays, his battles with team mate Ryan Lochte sure to be among the Games' highlights.

While Phelps enters the Games as the leading man for the United States, the team's supporting cast is impressive.

Natalie Coughlin, winner of six medals in 2008, is chasing more Olympic glory while 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the first American female swimmer to qualify for seven events, could be the emerging star of the U.S. swim team.

MANY CHANCES

With Jamaican speedsters taking ownership of the sprints and Ethiopia and Kenya runners dominating the long distance events, Americans no longer reign supreme over track and field but the U.S. still expects 30 medals from athletics.

The U.S. athletics team won 23 medals in Beijing but only seven were gold, prompting an investigation and a goal of 30 podiums in London.

Medals may be hard to come by in the sprints with Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ready to lay siege to the Olympic podium but there are many chances elsewhere for the United States.

LaShawn Merritt, the Olympic 400 meters champion, is back to defend his crown after serving a 21-month drug suspension while Ashton Eaton signaled he is the man to beat in the decathlon after demolishing the world record at the U.S. trials.

Big things are also expected from gymnasts.

The U.S. women's squad, led by all-round world champion Jordyn Wieber will be under intense scrutiny in London as will the latest version of basketball's Dream Team.

Despite a run of injuries that would have devastated any other country's medal hopes, the U.S. men's basketball team remains the favorite to win the gold medal.

From big names to relative unknowns, archery, badminton, shooting, tennis, rowing, wrestling and the boxing ring all present golden opportunities for U.S. athletes.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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