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U.S. says going into medals battle as underdog

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States will be the underdog in the battle for Olympic medals in Beijing because the Chinese have become much stronger since the Athens Games four years ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee said on Wednesday.

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“The Chinese team ... is exceptionally strong and predicted by almost all to lead the medal count in these Games, and the gold medal count,” Chief Executive Office Jim Scherr said.

“We really look at this as a three-country race with China leading the way between Russia and the U.S. and China,” the former wrestling Olympian told a news conference.

The Chinese are aiming to win more gold medals during the August 8-24 Beijing Games than the 32 they won at Athens, when they finished second behind the Americans’ 36.

The United States grabbed the most medals overall four years ago -- 102, compared with Russia’s 92 and China’s 63.

Chinese officials have played down their chances of overtaking the Americans despite home advantage and heavy investment in training potential medalists.

Some point to China’s weakness in swimming and athletics, in which defending 110m hurdles champion Liu Xiang is the only real title contender.

However, the United States was making neither prediction nor boast for its 596 athletes on Wednesday.

“The majority of the pollsters are picking China to win the gold medal count, if not the total medal count. We make no predictions on whether we will be first or second or third,” Scherr said.

Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth told the news conference that, except in the winter games, the United States is “not used to being the underdog in the Olympic Games”.

He recalled that during the 1984 Los Angeles Games, China’s first, when China won a gold medal he said to himself “Wow, these guys are good”, and was not surprised when they went from strength to strength in the years that followed.

China will have its largest delegation for any Olympics at the Beijing Games with more than 600 athletes.

Scherr said Beijing was not a one-shot opportunity for China because the inspiration many Chinese will draw and the sports infrastructure that has been built will keep it competitive.

“We think this will be a formidable system that we will have to contend with for a very long time,” he said.

Editing by Alex Richardson