SYDNEY – Australia are banking on their swimmers and ace cyclists as they aim to punch above their weight yet again at the Olympics with a target of 15 golds and a top-five spot on the medals table.
The sports-obsessed nation of 22 million has jostled with larger countries in the top-six at the last three Summer Olympics, with a high-water mark of 16 golds when Sydney hosted in 2000.
But increasing funding pressures, amid the federal government’s plan to cut sports hand-outs, has the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) forecasting a negative impact at future Games.
The AOC is spending a total of more than $Aus30 million ($30 million) to send a team of around 400 athletes to London, including gold medal contenders in swimming, cycling, sailing, field hockey and rowing.
Australia are never there just to make up the numbers and they will be confident of competing with hosts Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Italy for a place on the medals table behind superpowers the United States, China and Russia.
Chef de mission Nick Green said Australia’s eye-catching performances at Olympic Games went far beyond sport.
“We use the sport as a discipline to showcase our nation at the highest level on a global stage,” he said.
“We want our athletes, and the team behind our athletes — coaches, sport scientists, medical professionals and technology — to embrace how we’re seen around the world and to invest in that intellectual property, the people and the science around sport, to continue to showcase this nation.”
Swimming is Australia’s signature event at the Olympics, with 58 golds making them second only to the United States, who have won 217.
James ‘The Missile’ Magnussen tops the rankings in the 100 metres freestyle this year and holds four of the seven fastest times in the event, making him the favourite in London.
“I go into every race backing myself and I’ll certainly be confident going into this event in London — people are going to sit up and take notice,” Magnussen declared.
Australia also have high hopes for triple Beijing Olympics champion Stephanie Rice in the medley events, along with the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team.
Australia, the track cycling kings of Athens 2004, are expected to bounce back from their disappointing Beijing return of just one medal to challenge Britain after their impressive showing at the world championships in April.
The home team topped the table in Melbourne with 15 medals, including six gold while the British were second on 13, also including six gold.
“We’re tracking really well… so we’re pleased with the progress the athletes have made. We know what events we need to improve on between now and London,” Australia’s performance director Kevin Tabotta said.
Sprint queen Anna Meares is in three events: the team sprint alongside triple world champion Kaarle McCulloch, and the sprint and keirin.
With just one more medal in London, she will become the first female cyclist overall to win four Olympic track medals and the first to medal at three Games.
Australia won the men’s team pursuit gold at the test event on the London track, while Shane Perkins, Scott Sunderland and Matthew Glaetzer are the reigning world team sprint champions. Glenn O’Shea holds the omnium world title.
World women’s athlete of 2011 Sally Pearson is looking to go one better than her Beijing silver in the 100m hurdles after winning at the world championships in Daegu last year.
But Steve Hooker, the reigning Olympic pole vault champion, appears far from his best after injury and confidence problems left him struggling to qualify and unimpressive in recent events.
Australian sailors have strong chances of gold with world champions Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page in the 470 men, world champions Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen in the 49er and Tom Slingsby in the Laser.
The ‘Kookaburras’ are strong favourites for the gold medal after a dominant period in men’s field hockey.
Under coach Ric Charlesworth, Australia have won the 2010 World Cup, three of their last four Champions’ Trophy victories and have been placed in the top four in every Olympics since 1980, including gold in 2004.
Australia have their sights on gold in rowing in the lightweight men’s four, men’s quad scull and men’s double scull, while the women’s basketball team have finished runners-up to the United States at the last three Olympics.