In Athens, the U.S. claimed more total medals (102) and more golds (36) than any other nation, leading the overall medal count for the third consecutive Games.
The signature star of the Beijing Games is expected to be Michael Phelps. In his breakout Olympic performance in Athens, the Baltimore native won a stunning eight medals (six gold, two bronze), tying Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for most medals won at a single Olympic Games. At the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, Phelps authored one of the greatest performances in the history of his sport, winning seven gold medals and setting five world records. Phelps has a chance to leave the Beijing Games with more gold medals than any other Olympian in history. Four athletes - Finland's Paavo Nurmi (track and field), the Soviet Union's Larisa Latynina (gymnastics) and countrymen Mark Spitz (swimming) and Carl Lewis (track and field) - are tied with nine career Olympic golds. With four Olympic titles in Beijing, Phelps would arguably own the distinction of being the greatest Olympian of all-time.
Beyond Phelps, the U.S. men's swimming team is extremely deep and talented, featuring the world's best backstroker in three-time Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol, breaststroker Brendan Hansen and the emerging Ryan Lochte, who won five medals (three silver, two gold) at the 2007 World Championships.
The U.S. women's swimming team is also formidable and will have multi-medal contenders in Katie Hoff (who has emerged as a force after making her Olympic debut as a 15-year-old in Athens), Natalie Coughlin (14 total medals at the past three major championships) and Kate Ziegler, who has been called "The next Janet Evans" for her distance swimming prowess (Ziegler has won two straight world titles in the 800m free).
World champion Shawn Johnson considers track star Sanya Richards to be her mentor; both could win golds in Beijing.
After winning nine gymnastics medals in Athens (the second most of any nation behind Romania), the U.S. will once again bring a strong team to Beijing. Led by world all-around champ Shawn Johnson, the U.S. women won seven medals, including team gold, at 2007 Worlds. Johnson, who hails from West Des Moines Iowa, is the favorite to win all-around gold in Beijing, where she will be 16 years old. Another star on the U.S. women's team is 2005 world all-around silver medalist Nastia Liukin, who should contend for multiple medals as well.
The U.S. men had a strong performance at the 2007 World Championships, finishing fourth in the team competition with Jonathan Horton just missing the all-around podium (he placed fourth). The 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm- who made a comeback after leaving the sport following the Athens Games - withdrew from the Beijing Games due to injury, leaving the U.S. men's Olympic medal outlook uncertain.
The American track and field team topped the medal count at the 2004 Games and won a commanding 26 medals (10 more than second-place Russia) at the 2007 World Championships. As has traditionally been the case, the focal point of the U.S. team in 2008 will once again be a talented corps of sprinters. During a breakout year in which he won world titles in both the 100m and 200m, former Arkansas star Tyson Gayestablished himself as one of the most dominant sprinters in the world. Gay will have his hands full with Jamaica's Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt, the new world record holder in the 100m. At the Olympic Trials, Gay suffered a cramped hamstring during the heats of the 200m and did not finish, meaning he will not run the event in Beijing. favorite in both events.
In the 400m, Jeremy Wariner - whose agent and mentor is Michael Johnson - has won gold at the past three major championships and is the favorite to win gold again in Beijing. But a rival to Wariner has emerged in LaShawn Merritt, who has beaten Wariner twice in 2008 including at the Olympic Trials. The U.S. swept the 400m medals at the 2004 Games and at the 2007 World Championships and has a legitimate chance to repeat that feat in 2008.
Thanks to Kenya native Bernard Lagat, the U.S. also has newfound credibility in middle distances. America has not won an Olympic 1500m medal since Jim Ryun in 1968, but Lagat - who won silver for Kenya in 2004 and gold for the United States at the World Championships in 2007 - is a gold medal contender in Beijing. Lagat will also attempt to emulate Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, who won both the 1500m and the 5000m at the Athens Games. Lagat is the reigning world champion in the 5000m and would be a gold medal contender in that event as well.
The star of the U.S. women's track team is Allyson Felix, whose dominance at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan forecast a massive performance in 2008. Felix won gold in the 200m, 4x100m relay and 4x400m relay and her Olympic program in Beijing could mirror those results.
In the 400m, Sanya Richards had a disappointing 2007 in part due to the immune system disorder known as Bechet's syndrome, but the former Texas Longhorn and 2005 world silver medalist should be a multi-medal threat in Beijing.
In beach volleyball, the U.S. won both titles at the 2007 World Championships - a third straight for 2004 Olympic champs Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and a surprise first for Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, who vaulted themselves from Olympic medal contenders to Olympic medal favorites.
In diving, China has asserted itself as the clear dominant power, but the U.S. does have a few medal hopes, led by 2000 Olympic platform champ Laura Wilkinson, who is a medal contender but not the gold medal favorite. Thomas Finchum and David Boudia could reach the podium in synchro platform, as they did at 2007 Worlds, and both have the potential to challenge for an individual medal as well (Boudia won 2008 World Cup bronze).
The U.S. will also have multiple medal contenders in wrestling, boxing, cycling, equestrian, shooting, fencing, shooting and taekwondo.
In team sports, the U.S. has gold medal favorites in women's basketball and softball and gold medal contenders in baseball, men's basketball, women's soccer and women's water polo. The U.S. also has potential medal-contending teams in men's and women's volleyball and men's soccer.