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Countdown to London 2012

US team faces some hurdles in next Olympics

By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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Ever since the Soviet Union came apart like a cheap socialist suit, the United States has topped the medal table at the Summer Olympics, collecting 110 three years ago. But the Chinese knocked the Yanks off the gold standard in Beijing, winning 51 to their 36, and Uncle Sam’s primary creditor also could corner the market in silver and bronze at the London Games next summer.

Based on world championships results and global rankings, China could win nearly 100 medals, while the Americans might struggle to claim more than 80, which would be their fewest since 1960.

Swimming and track and field, two traditional US medal machines, figure to contribute nearly 50 between them, and gymnastics should be good for half a dozen. But the Chinese could pile up 50 just in diving, shooting, table tennis, badminton, and weightlifting, where the US will be lucky to get a handful. When the Middle Kingdom has a world champion in women’s boxing, you know there is a new world order at Olympus.

A sport-by-sport look at the US prospects for London:

Archery: The day of the gilded bull’s-eye is past for the Americans, who didn’t win a thing in Beijing. But Brady Ellison should produce their first podium finish since 2000.

Badminton: Howard Bach and Bob Malaythong were a best-ever fifth in doubles in 2008. With old partner Tony Gunawan getting his citizenship next month, he and Bach could be back in the mix.

Basketball: The natural order was restored in 2008 with a decisive double gold, and both teams are reigning world champions. The women are odds-on to win their fifth straight crown. Unless the NBA delays its season into the summer and the federation has to send the AAU All-Stars, the men should repeat.

Boxing: Unless new team consultant Freddie Roach can get his eligibility back, these likely will be another Games without gold for the US males, who have won only one since 1996 and managed just a bronze last time. Beijing veterans Rau’shee Warren and Raynell Williams are competing in this week’s trials, as is heavyweight Michael Hunter, but Frankie Gomez, the only medalist at the last world tournament, turned pro. The best chance for a medal may be on the women’s side with Queen Underwood.

Canoe/kayak: It will be a long paddle back for both the flatwater and slalom people. There hasn’t been a medal in either discipline since 1996, and nobody came close to the Europeans at the last world championships.

Cycling: Matching the five medals from four disciplines last time might be a stretch, but Sarah Hammer will be favored in the individual pursuit and Levi Leipheimer could make the time-trial podium again. The variables are Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong, who is making a post-maternity comeback, and the BMXers, who came up empty at the world championships.

Diving: Three straight Games without a medalist would be unthinkable for the country that once owned the gold. That drought figures to end with David Boudia, who won a global silver in the 10-meter platform. Troy Dumais and Christina Loukas also are within reach.

Equestrian: After winning one of each color in 2008, the horse folks managed just a dressage bronze by Steffen Peters at last year’s world championships on the Kentucky bluegrass. Unless the jumpers get aloft again, the Americans might leave Greenwich Park empty-handed.

Fencing: Duplicating their half-dozen medals from China would be an extraordinary achievement, but the Americans should be good for at least a trio. Mariel Zagunis looks good for a third straight gold in sabre and Gerek Meinhardt figures to get one in foil, as should the men’s epee team.

Field hockey: The women, who haven’t medaled since 1984, didn’t qualify for the World Cup and may not earn a return trip to the Games. The men haven’t done it without an automatic host ticket since 1956 and are long shots again.

Gymnastics: After winning an astounding 10 medals inside China’s pressure-filled boom box, the Americans have set the bar exceptionally high, and they still should be good for a half-dozen. Nastia Liukin likely won’t return, but Shawn Johnson is making a comeback, Rebecca Bross has stepped in, and Alicia Sacramone still is the world’s best vaulter. Behind veteran Jonathan Horton, an all-around contender, the men again will be in the mix. Nothing, though, from the rhythmic and trampoline side.

Judo: After Ronda Rousey’s medal breakthrough last time, former clubmate Kayla Harrison will be favored for gold. Tough road for the men, who last made the podium with Jim Pedro in 2004.

Modern pentathlon: Margaux Isaksen could crack the women’s top 10, but a medal is a long shot. The men, who have nobody ranked in the top 30, haven’t won a medal against a full field since 1964.

Rowing: The Yanks got the three medals they craved in Beijing with the big boats and sculler Michelle Guerette. They could grab another trio with the world-champ women’s eight, pair, and lightweight double. If the men contribute on the sweep side, there could be more.

Sailing: The fistful-of-medals days are gone, but Anna Tunnicliffe and Zach Railey, who won gold and silver in Beijing, are back. Two or three podium places seem reasonable.

Shooting: The US sharpshooters were back on target in Beijing with six medals, including a pair of shotgun golds. They might be happy to do half as well this time, although Josh Richmond (double trap) and Kim Rhode (skeet) both should be atop the podium.

Soccer: Can the US women three-peat? They have always bounced back after a World Cup disappointment, but at least four rivals (Japan, Brazil, Germany, Sweden) now are matches for them. A bad outing at the wrong time could keep them off the podium. The men should be respectable, but they haven’t won a medal since 1904.

Swimming: Michael Phelps won’t win eight golds (figure him for four), but his teammates should exceed the dozen they grabbed in Beijing thanks to an upsurge from the women, who will get seven from breaststroker Rebecca Soni, backstroker Missy Franklin, flyer Dana Vollmer, IMer Elizabeth Beisel, and a couple of relays. Phelps is still the world’s top flyer, Ryan Lochte should win the 200 free, 200 back, and both IMs, and the men will cash two relays. Matching the 31-medal mother lode from 2008 will be difficult, but count on a minimum of 25.

Synchronized swimming: After two medals in Athens, the Americans have dropped below the surface. They were fifth in duet and team in 2008 and 11th and 10th at the recent world championships. Glug, glug, glug.

Table tennis: The women, who made a great leap upward in China, have slipped back and won’t contend this time. Neither will the men, who don’t have anyone ranked in the top 300.

Taekwondo: Team Lopez (Steve, Mark, Diana) earned a trio in 2008, but the Americans didn’t win a medal at the world championships and still have to qualify for the Games.

Team handball: If either team qualifies, it will be an epic breakthrough. Except for automatic host tickets, the women haven’t done it since 1992 and the men since 1988.

Tennis: The Williams sisters grabbed gold last time, but who can say where they will be next summer? Brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, though, could upgrade from bronze, and James Blake may have a shot.

Track and field: There will be an updated form sheet after the upcoming world meet in South Korea, but the original 30-medal goal seems bold. The Americans won a table-topping 23 in China and 22 at the last global championships, 10 gold. As always, the richest veins will be the sprints, hurdles, decathlon, and men’s shot put.

Triathlon: Laura Bennett just missed last time and is still the best hope for what would be only the second medal ever by a US athlete.

Volleyball: It hardly can get better than two beach golds, another from the men’s indoor team and a silver from the women’s. That was the haul last time, and it will likely be lighter next year. A silver from Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh was the only beach medal at this summer’s world championships and neither indoor squad made the podium last year.

Water polo: After going double-silver in 2008, the Yanks took a dunking at the recent world tournament, where both teams finished sixth. The women, who figured to be the London favorites, should rebound, but the men will do well to collect anything shiny.

Weightlifting: The women are respectable, the men overmatched in a sport where the Russians, Chinese, and Turks rule. There hasn’t been a US medal since 2000 and won’t be one in 2012.

Wrestling: Olympic champion Henry Cejudo’s unretirement is the best thing to happen to a men’s team that didn’t win a single medal in freestyle or greco-roman at last year’s global meet. The production likely will come from the women’s side, where Russian emigre (and former Massachusetts high schooler) Elena Pirozhkova and Tatiana Padilla are world medalists.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.