US Olympic storylines

By Charean Williams
McClatchy Newspapers
The United States has won a thousand more medals in Olympic history than any other country. It has twice as many gold medals.
In the past three Olympics, the United States has won the medal count, including 102 in Athens four years ago, which was 38 more than second-place Russia and 39 more than third-place China.
Yet, the superpower is casting itself as the underdog to China this year when the Summer Olympics begin Aug. 8 in Beijing.
We have a good team; we have a strong team,'' Jim Scherr, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief executive officer said, but we’re making no illusions about the fact that we believe the Chinese have the strongest team entering these Games.’’
At world championships last year, the United States won four of six gold medals in women’s gymnastics, 20 in swimming and 14 in track. But none of those events was held in China.
China is our biggest competition and knowing we are going to their home turf gives us a little bit of pressure,'' said gymnast Shawn Johnson, the reigning individual all-around world champion in women's gymnastics. We are going to be working harder than ever. During the Pan Am Games in Brazil, we had a crowd that was against us, but we worked really hard and got their recognition and cheers at the end.’’
Here are eight U.S. storylines to watch:

  1. Michael Phelps’ pursuit of Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics
    Phelps won six gold medals and two bronzes in the 2004 Athens Games. That equaled the Olympic record of the most medals won in one Games, first achieved in 1980 by Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin. Phelps remains the top swimmer in the world, having set world records in the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys at the world championships in Australia.
    In winning his seven golds in 1972, Spitz set world records in all seven events. He won the 100-meter freestyle, the 200-meter freestyle, the 100-meter fly and the 200-meter fly, while swimming on the three relays.
  2. The last hurrah of softball and baseball
    The International Olympic Committee voted three years ago to eliminate softball and baseball - sports founded in the United States - in 2012. They are the first sports cut from the Olympics since polo in 1936.
    Baseball joined the Olympics as a medal sport in 1992 and softball in '96. While the U.S. baseball team has won only two medals, including the gold in 2000, and failed to qualify in 2004, the American softball team has dominated. The United States has won all three gold medals in softball, outscoring opponents 51-1 in nine victories in Athens.
    The U.S. softball team arguably is the most dominant team in Olympic history, a fact that didn’t help the sport’s cause. The Americans are heavy favorites again this year.
  3. The Dream Team’s attempt to revive its nickname
    The U.S. men’s basketball team has won 15 medals in the 15 Olympics it has played in, including 12 golds. The squad became known as the Dream Team in 1992 when NBA players began competing in the Olympics. In winning gold medals in '92, '96 and 2000, the Americans were 24-0.
    Most of the NBA’s best American players elected not to play on Team USA in '04, and the United States went only 5-3 and settled for the bronze.
    The United States then finished third in the 2006 World Championships.
  4. Following in Carly Patterson’s footsteps
    The United States had to wait 20 years between gymnastics gold medals in the women’s all-around. In Athens, Patterson beat Russian superstar Svetlana Khorkina by 0.176 points to give the United States the gold for the first time since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.
    Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin both have high hopes of becoming America’s next golden children in gymnastics. Johnson, 16, is the 2007 world individual all-around champion and the 2008 U.S. national champion. Liukin, 18, was the U.S. national individual all-around champion in 2005 and '06.
  5. The new era of U.S. women’s soccer
    Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain have retired. Kristine Lilly, the world’s all-time leader in games played (340), is taking the year off to have a baby. That means several new, young faces will have to emerge if the United States is to defend its Olympic gold medal.
    The United States is first in the FIFA world rankings ahead of Germany despite finishing third in the World Cup last September.
    Hope Solo is expected to start in goal for the United States in Beijing. She was the center of a controversy at the World Cup, kicked off the team after criticizing then-coach Greg Ryan’s decision to bench her in the World Cup semifinals. (Briana Scurry gave up four goals as the United States lost to Brazil 4-0.)
    Ryan, who was 45-1-9, did not have his contract renewed two months later and was replaced by Pia Sundhage, who welcomed back Solo.
  6. Domination on the track
    The U.S. track and field team won more medals, and more gold medals, than any other country at the 2004 Games. At the 2007 World Championships, it was more of the same as Americans won 26 medals, including 14 golds. That was 10 more medals and nine more golds than any other country.
    Tyson Gay, Jeremy Wariner, Reese Hoffa, Bernard Lagat, Bryan Clay, Jenn Stuczynski, Sanya Richards, Lauryn Williams and Allyson Felix are among the Americans with Olympic gold-medal dreams.
    Wariner, the defending gold medalist in the 400-meter dash, has made no secret of his desire to break the world record of 43.18 run by his agent, Michael Johnson.
  7. The first family of Taekwondo
    Steven Lo-pez became the first American fighter to beat the Koreans in the Olympics, winning gold medals in 2000 and '04. This year, he will be joined on the Olympic team by younger brother Mark and younger sister Diana. All three are coached by their eldest brother, Jean.
    The Lopez family is the first to have three siblings qualify for the U.S. Olympic team since 1904 when Edward, Richard and William Tritschler went to the Olympics in gymnastics. (None medaled.)
  8. Olympic records for Sheila Taormina and Dara Torres
    Taormina, 39, is the first woman ever to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports. She won a gold medal as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay in Atlanta in 1996 before moving on to the triathlon, where she placed sixth in 2000 and 23rd in 2004. In Beijing, Taormina will compete in the modern pentathlon.
    Torres, 41, made her first Olympic team in 1984. She will become the first swimmer to compete on five Olympic teams and the oldest Olympic swimmer in history. Torres is a nine-time Olympic medalist.