boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
Beijing 2008

US still has legs, and a pool of gold

The official position out of Colorado Springs is that the Chinese will knock Uncle Sam's top hat over their Great Wall at next summer's Olympics. "It's no secret that we're more than underdogs," US Olympic Committee chief executive Jim Scherr says. "They're blowing us out of the water in the gold-medal race."

Yet while it's clear China has displaced Russia as the top United States challenger, the numbers say the Americans still will top the table in Beijing, just as they have at the last three Games.

Maybe they won't hit the same jackpot they did in Athens, when the Yanks won 102 medals, 36 of them gold. But the US has a massive edge where it counts, in track and field and swimming, where it could win more than 60 medals and nearly 40 golds. "Doing well in those two sports lays a great foundation for you," says Steve Roush, the USOC's sports performance chief.

Unless they're stashing a secret team somewhere, the Chinese won't get more than a handful of medals on the track and in the pool. No matter how many diving, table tennis, badminton, shooting, and weightlifting medals they grab, that's a huge deficit to make up.

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

Archery: The day when Uncle Sam shot golden arrows is long past. Best chance, most likely for a bronze, rides with Jennifer Nichols, who was fourth at the world championships.

Badminton: Howard Bach and Tony Gunawan shocked the Asians by winning the world doubles title two years ago, but Gunawan's non-citizenship will keep him out of the Games. Still, Bach and new partner Bob Malaythong could make some noise.

Baseball: At least they qualified for the sport's final inning at Olympus after sitting home last time. But getting more than a bronze will be a reach. The Cubans and Japanese are just too tough.

Basketball: If Kobe & Ko. can't win it, the Yanks never will. It's the best bunch since the Dream Team. Their third place at last year's world tournament was a wake-up call for the US women, who'll still be favored to win their fourth straight title.

Boxing: Not much has changed since Athens, where the Americans finished behind Thailand in the medal count. Unless someone pops out of a gym in Philly or Detroit, it will probably be a couple of bronzes from veteran light flyweight Rau'shee Warren and bantamweight Gary Russell Jr.

Canoe/kayak: Could be a washout for the paddlers unless the slalom types can pull something off. The flatwater folks have been up the creek for a while now.

Cycling: With the addition of BMX to the program and an upsurge by the women, the spokeheads could produce half a dozen medals. Sarah Hammer will be favored in the pursuit, roadies Kristin Armstrong, Christine Thorburn, and David Zabriskie can go the distance in the time trial, and the men should win a couple in BMX.

Diving: Another once-gilded sport gone sour for the Yanks. After their worst Olympic showing since 1912, they managed only a bronze medal (in men's synchro) at this year's world meet. Beating the Chinese in Beijing is a fantasy.

Equestrian: The horsey set (five medals in six events in 2004) always comes through. It may not be gold, but there'll be something shiny in all three disciplines again -- jumping, eventing, and dressage.

Fencing: That Athenian breakthrough was no fluke. The US women still are carving up the world in sabre and they could sweep the medals with Rebecca Ward, defending champ Mariel Zagunis, and Sada Jacobson.

Field hockey: Even if the women qualify next year, they're a long shot. The men, who got the wood laid to them at the Pan American Games, are finished for the quadrennium.

Gymnastics: With the men scrambling even to qualify, there's no way to match the astounding nine medals from last time, even if the unretired Hamm twins regain their form. But the women should be good for at least five, with one or two coming from Winchester's Alicia Sacramone.

Judo: With Jimmy Pedro retired, it could be an empty-handed Games. If Wakefield resident Ronda Rousey has a great day, though, she could make the stand.

Modern pentathlon: A rebuilding job after a disappointing Athens. If Sheila Taormina makes the team in her third sport, it'll be a great story, but the Americans don't figure to be in the medal mix.

Rowing: The USOC would prefer more medals from the small boats, but the eights still are the prestige events. The women could upgrade to gold this time and the men, who won their first in 40 years in Athens, will be on the podium somewhere.

Sailing: Maybe the Yellow Sea will have fairer winds than the Atlantic, where the US won only one medal (a silver in Yngling) at the recent world championships in Portugal. There's a strong chance for Anna Tunnicliffe in Laser Radial, but multiple medals are unlikely.

Shooting: If there were team events in the Games, the Yanks would clean up. Right now, only one individual -- trapshooter Bret Erickson -- is looking good as gold.

Soccer: Only ageless Kristine Lilly remains from the Fab Five, but the women still are a podium presence. Next month's World Cup will determine the favorite, but the US will win a medal. The US males, who haven't qualified, will be on the young side, but with the likes of Benny Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, and Jonathan Spector, they'll be in the chase.

Softball: Nobody else has won the gold medal since the sport was introduced in 1996. The US women, who've won the last five world crowns, should collect the full five-ringed set before they bag the bats at Olympus for at least eight years. With luck and lobbying, softball will be back on the menu for 2016.

Swimming: Michael Phelps has only gotten faster since Athens and he'll have plenty of golden company with the likes of fellow world record-holders Katie Hoff, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker, and Ryan Lochte. This is one begoggled juggernaut.

Synchronized swimming: With nobody but reserve Andrea Nott back from the 2004 bronze-medal team, the Americans will be treading water as a young team gains experience. The top four would be an achievement.

Table tennis: Playing the Chinese on their own table will be daunting. Gao Jun, who won a medal for the People's Republic in 1992, still is Uncle Sam's best at 38. If she makes the quarters, she'll make history.

Taekwondo: Steve Lopez, the two-time gold medalist, is still around and he may have younger siblings Mark and Diana (both former world champs) with him. Three medals in four events isn't inconceivable.

Team handball: Didn't qualify, both men and women. Again.

Tennis: A sole silver (by Mardy Fish) in Athens marked the weakest modern-day outing. If the Williams sisters, the Bryan brothers, Andy Roddick, and James Blake are willing and able to play on scorching hard top amid nasty pollution, the US should be good for at least a couple of medals.

Track and field: Whether or not Justin Gatlin gets his doping ban reduced, this is a jet-propelled wagon. The form sheet will be clearer after the upcoming world championships in Japan, but the US won a whopping 25 medals in Helsinki two years ago, 18 of them gold. In the sprints, hurdles, and jumps, the Americans still rule.

Triathlon: One bronze last time was a letdown in a sport the Yanks created. There's still ample talent, specifically on the men's side with Hunter Kemper and Andy Potts. The question is, who wants to suffer the most in brutal conditions?

Volleyball: The sand is still where it's at, after the US swept the recent world beach titles with Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh and Phil Dalhausser/Todd Rogers. Not much to look for indoors, where the women were ninth and the men 10th at last year's world championships.

Water polo: The women, now world champs, keep getting better and finally should win their first Olympic crown. The men, ninth at the global tournament, barely are keeping their heads above the surface.

Weightlifting: If Cheryl Haworth can regain her old medal form, the Yanks could make it back to the podium after going bust in Athens. But she's the only serious contender.

Wrestling: With the Grecos on the upswing again, the US could surpass its half-dozen medals from Athens. Figure on at least three from the freestylers, three from the Grecos, and a couple from the women.

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

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES