| LONDON, July 25
LONDON, July 25 The venues are ready, the rain
clouds have moved away and the hype is coming to the boil -- now
comes the hard part for the 542-strong British team tasked with
delivering a stash of Olympic gold.
An outlay of 9 billion pounds ($14 billion) to bring the
Olympics back to London for the first time since 1948 has
provoked plenty of public cynicism since 2005.
However, that will all be blown away if Britain's finest
sportsmen and women get it right at the track, the pool,
velodrome and elsewhere over the next few weeks.
Fourth-place in the medals table in Beijing exceeded
expectations but that is now being seen as the benchmark for the
biggest British Olympic team ever assembled.
At the 2008 Olympics Britain won 47 medals, 19 of them gold,
across 11 sports.
For the London Games, UK Sport, the body that funds the
elite, has raised the bar and set a minimum target of 48 and an
upper level of 70.
"I think it's reasonable to expect that we will do better
than we did in Beijing in terms of number of medals and number
of gold medals," former British oarsman Matthew Pinsent, who won
four gold medals from four Olympics, told Reuters.
"I think that in terms of the overall British haul of medals
a lot will be depend on the big five sports -- the rowers, the
sailors, the swimmers, cyclists and the track and field team."
However, he warned that some may crack under the pressure.
"I think that broadly speaking Britain is on course for a
very good Games because it's at home, but that will also raise
the pressure levels," he said.
"There will be some athletes who suffer because of that and
buckle under it. If that does happen I hope that they are not
criticised too much."
The worst-case scenario for a home nation is a long wait for
a first gold medal, but going by the Olympic schedule it could
not have worked out better for Britain.
Bradley Wiggins, who became Britain's first Tour de France
champion on Sunday, will be joined by Mark Cavendish in the
men's road race - with both among the favourites to deliver gold
the day after the opening ceremony.
Nicole Cooke will then try to defend her title in the
women's road race on Sunday before the focus shifts to the track
team led by Chris Hoy, winner of three golds in Beijing where
the British team proved virtually unstoppable.
Britain could also make a splash in the pool in the first
week with Rebecca Adlington, who went from obscurity to a
sporting phenomenon after winning the 400m and 800m freestyle in
Beijing, set to lead the way.
"I think she is in the best shape of her life," British
swimming's performance director Michael Scott said in the
build-up to the Games.
No one will feel the weight of expectation more than the
poster girl of the British team, heptathlete Jessica Ennis.
The 2009 world champion is one of the home nation's best
hopes for gold inside the showpiece Olympic stadium, along with
triple jumper Phillips Idowu, reigning Olympic women's 400m
champion Christine Ohuruogu and distance runner Mo Farah.
"Because of the expectation and pressure, I think anything
but gold, everyone would view that as a failure and I'm aware of
that," Ennis, whose battle with world champion Tatyana Chernova
and world indoor champion Nataliya Dobrynska, could be one of
the highlights of the Games, said last week.
"It's been such a huge build-up for all of us and I'm
feeling ready to get on with it now. It's been a great year so
far and I just want to put the icing on the cake."
Another runner who could make a name for herself is Perri
Shakes-Drayton, a 400m hurdler who grew up just down the road
from the Olympic Park in east London.
In winning this month's London Diamond League meeting with a
personal best she has suddenly entered medal contention.
Experienced Olympians such as Ben Ainslie, a three-times
sailing gold medallist, and any number of rowers are expected to
deliver. As will diver Tom Daley four years after he swapped his
school books for swimming trunks in China.
It cannot be all plain sailing for the hosts and there are
some events where a medal will be well out of reach, but the
Olympics will at least give some of the country's minority
sports the chance to share the spotlight.
Britain will field men's and women's volleyball and handball
teams for the first time at the Olympics while water polo will
have British interest for the first time in 56 years.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)