Team USA going for another win in Olympic medals count
Quick: name the biggest controversy that has swirled for years around the upcoming London Olympics.
Unlike the 2008 Beijing Games in China, there has been no endless barrage of international disputes surrounding the London Games as they draw near. No charges of institutionalized human-rights abuses. No global challenges to an authoritarian regime. Heck, nobody has even attacked the Olympic torch in protest during its journey around the United Kingdom.
Which means there's plenty of room to anticipate the actual sports.
Can sprinter Usain Bolt repeat his spectacular performances on the track? Will swimmer Michael Phelps hold off rival Ryan Lochte in his final Olympics? Can injury-plagued Team USA win basketball gold on the 20th anniversary of the original Dream Team and help the Americans surpass surging China to win the medal count again?
All of those questions, and more, will begin to be answered when the Olympics begin July 27 in the only city to host them three times.
"It looks like our team is really shaping up well," said Alan Ashby, the chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Exactly who will be on it, though, remains to be seen.
Track, swimming and gymnastics, in particular, will hold dramatic, make-or-break trials over the next month that will determine the bulk of the American team.
Many locals are hoping to make the cut, although realistically, the Utah contingent probably will comprise about a dozen athletes including BMX rider Arielle Martin of Cedar Hills, who already has clinched her spot four years after a devastating disappointment kept her from Beijing.
"I can't even describe the feeling," she said.
Volleyball players Logan Tom and Ryan Millar figure to earn a place on the team for their fourth Olympics Â former Brigham Young University coach Hugh McCutcheon now leads the American women's team, after leading the men to gold in Beijing while cyclist David Zabriskie is hoping to make the team again and distance runner Cam Levins could be the surprise of the group.
The senior at Southern Utah University already has qualified for his native Canada, and owns some of the best times in the world this year in his events, the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
"It's a great position to be in that I didn't necessarily expect myself to be in," he said.
The Americans are hoping to win the medal count for the fifth straight Summer Olympics, but Ashby and other officials said they expect tough competition from China and Russia.
In fact, legendary track star Sebastian Coe, who now leads the committee organizing the London Games, said he expects the Chinese to beat the Americans because of their commitment to a wide array of sports programs that grew out of their preparation for the Beijing Games.
"We properly chastised him," USOC chairman Larry Probst joked recently. "Hopefully we can prove him wrong."
The Americans won 110 medals in Beijing, but only 36 golds compared with 51 for China, which won 100 medals overall. The last time they did not win the medal count at a Summer Olympic was 1992, when they finished behind the Unified Team of former Soviet republics at the Barcelona Games.
Yet the biggest sports stories in London seem poised to involve few Chinese.
While track hurdler Liu Xiang and swimmer Wu Peng the man who snapped Phelps' nine-year winning streak in the 200-meter butterfly last year could become transcendent figures, most of China's medals figure to come in lower-profile sports such as diving, shooting, badminton and weightlifting.
That's what happened in Beijing.
In London, the sports world once again will be focused on whether Bolt can blow away the field in track's marquee sprints (despite his unspectacular recent form), and whether Phelps can win the three medals he needs to reach 19 and become the most-decorated Olympian of all time before heading off into retirement.
Beyond that, the home country will be pulling for star heptathlete Jessica Ennis, track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy (going for his fifth gold medal) and doubles rowers Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins, among others though Coe has acknowledged that "Team GB" will have a battle on its hands to finish even fourth in the medal count, the way it did in Beijing.
"The Germans are probably going to bring the strongest team they've ever brought to a Games," he told the Associated Press. "The French are very, very strong this time, and the Australians will think fourth place is very much up for grabs. We could end up with more medals than we got in Beijing and maybe not finish fourth in the medals table."
And though the sailing toward the opening ceremony has been relatively smooth, organizers have not completely avoided controversy.
Critics have targeted a ballooning $15 billion budget that's roughly triple the original estimate, a massive security presence that could include deadly surface-to-air rockets on residential rooftops, an ongoing doping dispute that could allow previously banned drug cheats such as sprinter Dwain Chambers and cyclist David Millar to compete, and an Orwellian (if admittedly unenforceable) policy that aims to ban ticket-holders from posting photos or videos to social media sites.
On top of that, beer will cost $11 a pint inside the venues.
But all of that is practically standard operating procedure for the Olympics, anymore.
Surely, organizers are just happy the torch is safe.
Countdown to London
Today marks the start of The Salt Lake Tribune's countdown to the London Olympics that run from July 27 to Aug. 12. We'll have regular features on the most compelling athletes and top storylines both local and international Â as we tick off the days until the opening ceremony.
U.S. Olympic Trials
Athletes in three of the most glamorous sports in the Olympics will contest high-profile trials in the coming weeks, to determine much of Team USA:
• Track & Field,Â June 22-25 and June 28-July 1, Eugene, Ore.
• Swimming, June 25 to July 2, Omaha, Neb.
• Gymnastics, June 28 to July 1, San Jose, Calif.