LONDON, July 25 - More than a century of fierce sporting rivalry means there is nothing the Australian team would like more than to add a little more rain to the deluge already threatening Britain’s parade at the London Olympics.
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) have set themselves the goal of fifth place on the medals table, an optimistic target that would probably require them to approach the 49-medal tally they achieved in Athens eight years ago.
Britain’s unexpectedly good showing at the Beijing Games helped push the Aussies down to sixth in the rankings and even if they fail to pip the hosts on the medals table, they can still hurt British gold medal hopes in several events.
Chef de Mission Nick Green has said the Australians will do everything they can to gatecrash Britain’s party but his predecessor in the role, AOC president John Coates, has been more focused on achieving their own goal.
“I think the signs are there that we could get into the low 40s in our medals and that will be good enough for, if not fifth, then sixth or something like that,” Coates told local media last week.
“But it is more difficult for us in Europe. It’s not just the Brits, but also the Germans, and France are on their own doorstep. They have very big teams and are more comfortable competing in Europe than they were in Beijing.”
The 410-strong Australian team will again look to their swimmers, who won 20 medals in Beijing, to lead the way in the first week of competition.
The failed attempt at a comeback by five-times Olympic champion Ian Thorpe has left the way clear for a new star to shine and James Magnussen has the confidence and, more importantly, the times to fill the void.
The “missile” has not only indicated that he will end the country’s 44-year wait for a 100 metres freestyle champion but is confident he can take defending champion Cesar Cielo’s world record too.
There is less confidence on the women’s side of the team, where Beijing standout Stephanie Rice has been labouring with a shoulder injury.
Her competitive spirit means Rice will go all out to defend the 200 and 400 individual medley titles but she will struggle to match her Beijing haul of three golds, she was also part of the 4x200 freestyle relay team, all in world record times.
Athletics Australia have targeted six medals in track and field with Sally Pearson still a strong favourite to deliver one in the 100 metres hurdles.
Steve Hooker, by contrast, has hit the depths this year in his preparations for the defence of his pole vault crown and it will be a test of his mettle even to get into the air.
Long jumper Mitch Watt, however, has confidence to match Magnussen’s and looks to be building well towards a gold medal bid, while Jared Tallent is bidding for double gold to add to the silver and bronze he won in race walking in Beijing.
Where Australia could hurt Britain most is in the cycling, where Anna Meares’ not so friendly rivalry with Victoria Pendleton is just one of several intriguing battles between Australians and Britons.
The highly experienced road racing team is led by last year’s Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and he will be out to avenge the loss of the famous yellow jersey to Britain’s Bradley Wiggins.
Rower Drew Ginn leads a new-look Australian “Oarsome Foursome” best-placed to take on the defending champion British boat in the coxless fours and he would like nothing better than to upset the hosts and win his fourth gold medal.
Green will just be happy for the sport to start in London after a troublesome preparation for the Games which has taken in allegations of racism, sexism and even a row over who should carry the flag at the opening ceremony. (Editing by Greg Stutchbury)