LONDON — Of all the dramas that will unfold during the London Olympics, of all the events to be contested on land, sea and sand, the most heated competition isn't official but will be followed by flag-waving fans around the world.
There's no prize for the country whose athletes win the most medals and there's not even universal agreement on how to calculate that honor. Although most U.S. media consider the top nation to be the one whose athletes win the most medals, other countries generally give that designation to the nation that wins the most gold medals. So although the U.S. led the medal count at each of the last four Summer Olympics, its supremacy was dented in 2008 when host China won 51 gold medals, 15 more than the U.S. in its overall top total of 110.
All of which leads to some questions:
Without a home-Olympics advantage for China — and with host Britain not the athletic power that China has become — will the U.S. again win the race for gold and the unrecognized medals race?
"It's very ambitious. Very difficult to do," said Alan Ashley, chief of Sport Performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We weren't able to do it in Beijing, but you've got to have those 'stretch' goals as an organization to keep you focused."
China is probably the only nation that could surpass the U.S. medal total here. The U.S. could also win fewer medals than four years ago but still prevail overall if medals are more dispersed among the approximately 200 countries expected to compete here.
Ashley said nearly half of the 530 members of the U.S. team had been to at least one Olympics, an experience that should help them provide guidance to emerging young talent.
"And I look at the quality of the athletes and many of them have achieved at a very high level in the last few years, at world championships and international competitions," he said during a news conference Thursday. "I think that's also really hopeful from the standpoint of what they're capable of. …You can look at the quality of execution for many of our sports and many of our team members and what they have proven on the field of play already. And I think that gives me a lot of hope for the future and for these Games."
Ashley and other USOC officials won't say the number of medals they're targeting, but the majority of medals should again come from three major sports. In 2004, U.S. athletes won 103 medals (35 gold), including 14 in track and field, nine in gymnastics and 28 in swimming. Of the 110 medals won by U.S. athletes in Beijing, 23 were in track and field, 10 in gymnastics and 31 in swimming.
The 2008 total might be difficult to repeat.
Michael Phelps is swimming one fewer race than he did in Beijing, where his haul of eight gold medals was 22.2% of the U.S. gold total. In addition, the elimination of baseball and softball from the Olympics took away sports in which the U.S. prospered; the U.S. women's softball team won a medal in each of the four Olympic tournaments.
Ashley said he sees new medal sources for U.S. athletes in women's boxing, which will make its debut in London, as well as diving and archery. He singled out world No. 1-ranked recurve archer Brady Ellison of Glendale, Ariz., as a possible medalist.
"And he's got good teammates," Ashley said, "so I think not only is he personally in position to have great success, but also in a team event we have a chance there."
The U.S. could win two medals in mixed doubles tennis, one each for twins Mike and Bob Bryan and their undetermined partners. Lightweight boxer Queen Underwood, a bronze medalist at the 2010 world championships, could bring a medal home to Seattle.
Shooting is likely to maintain or improve its six-medal total of 2008, with Kim Rhode of El Monte taking the No. 1 world skeet ranking into her quest to win a medal in her fifth consecutive Games. Corey Cogdell will return after winning a bronze medal in women's trap in 2008, and other returnees include two-time Olympic rifle medalist Matt Emmons and 2008 double trap gold medalist Glenn Eller. Freestyle wrestlers could go from two medals in Beijing to three, with 2011 women's world champion Ali Bernard a contender in the 158.5-pound class, 2011 men's world champion Jordan Burroughs favored at 163 pounds and 2011 world third-place finisher Jake Varner a likely medalist at 211.5 pounds.
Phelps, sure to again be one of the most-watched athletes at the Games, is likely to win three individual races and three relay races. Only the 400-meter individual medley isn't etched in gold since his loss to Ryan Lochte at the U.S. trials. Lochte could take medals the 400 IM, 200 IM, 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter freestyle, plus three relays. Missy Franklin, the first woman entered in seven swim events, is expected to win medals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke and all three relays to help keep the swimmers' medal total near 30.