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For Australia, this Olympics, is all about managing expectation. The country that brought the world super Sydney 2000 has had to accept that Athens will, for them, not be as golden an occasion.
For a start there will be no Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal runner whose gold in the 400m four years ago electrified the nation. Freeman hung up her spikes in July last year after failing to regain her form following a one-year break. Then, swimmer Ian Thorpe, Australia’s other hero in Sydney, nearly failed to qualify for his best event, the 400m freestyle, at the trials.
Latterly, a doping scandal has engulfed the highly-rated cycling team. Mark French, a junior world champion, has been banned from the Olympics for life, after being found guilty of trafficking a prohibited substance. More damagingly, French then implicated other cyclists.
Nevertheless, Australia believes it can win 50 medals, including 14 gold, which would be enough to keep it in the top five nations. They are sending 480 athletes, their largest contingent to an overseas Olympics, and will be represented in every sport except handball. They have qualified for more team events than any nation apart from Greece.
Four years ago, Australia’s 631 athletes won 58 medals, including 16 golds.
John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, is hoping for good things in the canoeing and rowing, while both hockey teams and the women’s softball and women’s basketball sides have high expectations.
It is Australia’s swimmers, however, who are expected to bring home the single biggest tally – assuming the men’s team are up to the challenge posed by Michael Phelps, the 19-year-old US star. Thorpe is again expected to win several medals, including gold in the 400m freestyle, while Grant Hackett is favoured to repeat his Sydney win in the 1,500m. The pair will also spearhead Australia’s efforts in the 4x200m freestyle.
Among the women, Petria Thomas in the butterfly; Leisel Jones and Brooke Hanson in the breaststroke; and Libby Lenton and Jodie Henry in the 100m freestyle are all considered gold chances.
Few, however, would savour victory as much as marksman Michael Diamond, who is bidding for his third successive gold after winning the trap in Atlanta and Sydney. Diamond was relieved of his gun licence after being accused of assault by a former girlfriend. It was only when the case was dropped that he was allowed to resume training again.