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On the eve of the Athens Games, American confidence seems to have been muscled aside by anxiety and vulnerability.

Even the Dream Team, the basketball team that was once the surest of gold medal chances, is a cause for jitters. With Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd all sitting this Olympics out, coach Larry Brown is in charge of a squad dangerously short on superstars and experience.

But why the no-shows? Bryant, at least, has a reason: his trial on sexual assault charges begins on August 27. As for the others, security concerns were probably a factor, but pride was perhaps a bigger one., the rest of the planet has been chipping away at their advantage. In Sydney four years ago, a star-studded US side struggled to beat both Lithuania and France. Hosting the World Championships two years ago, the US was beaten by Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain en route to a humiliating sixth-place finish.

National Basketball Association royals have images to protect, and although they would surely never admit it, perhaps the spectre of an embarrassing defeat in Athens weighed on the minds of O’Neal, Garnett and Kidd of course, their absence makes the US team even more ripe for plucking. Is defeat likely? Probably not – any side that includes Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, and LeBron James is a formidable one. However, it is remarkable that losing is even considered a possibility. The nervous chatter about the not-so-dream team is in some ways emblematic of the broader concerns Team USA carries to Athens.

The lead-up to the Games has been a sobering time for the Americans. Terrorism fears have dominated the headlines at home, and the 500-plus US athletes who will be competing in Athens have been warned to maintain a low profile when venturing outside the Olympic compound.

Security worries apart, the athletes are keenly aware that the US does not enjoy much affection around the world. They have been advised by US Olympic officials to keep their victory jigs in Athens on the modest side. Keep your head down and do your business: these are the marching orders.

The countdown to Athens has been dispiriting in other ways. The US track and field team arrived in Greece under an ominous cloud. The steroid scandal revolving around Balco, a California-based nutritional supplements firm, has ensnared a number of US athletics stars, notably Marion Jones, belle of the ball in Sydney four years ago, when she won five medals.

Jones has not been charged with any violations, but an investigation into alleged steroid use is continuing and rumours and anonymous claims have left her rattled. At last month’s US Olympic trials, Jones failed to qualify in the 100m and withdrew from the 200m, two events that earned her gold in Sydney. This time, she will be competing only in the long jump, normally her weakest event.

That Jones made the team at all must be rated a minor miracle, considering how some of the other athletes caught up in the Balco probe have fared.

Her boyfriend and father of her one-year-old son, 100m world record holder Tim Montgomery, also a target of the investigation, failed to qualify for Athens. Michelle Collins, Alvin Harrison and Chryste Gaines also failed. They are all standout performers and all formally accused of doping violations stemming from the Balco case. They face lifetime bans if allegations are proved.

In Athens, the US will be looking to Maurice Greene to lift some of the gloom that hangs over American track and field and to help restore its good name. That is no small irony, considering the embarrassment Greene, the defending Olympic 100m champion, caused the US in Sydney.

There, he was part of the victorious 4x100m relay team, which celebrated its triumph with some flag-draped strutting and preening that would have made a peacock blush. Four years later, and presumably four years wiser, Greene, 30, finds himself the eminence grise of American athletics. US officials clearly hope another gold medal performance will make the steroid story go away, at least for a few days.

Michael Phelps is the American who will be under the hottest spotlight in Athens. The 19-year-old swimming sensation hopes to surpass the seven gold medals compatriot Mark Spitz won in Munich in 1972. Phelps qualified for nine events but only intends to compete in five individual races and three relays. He is expected to win the 200m and 400m individual medleys and the 200m butterfly – he holds the world record in all three events. He is also expected to contend strongly in both the 100m butterfly and the 200m freestyle. He will almost certainly compete against Australia’s Ian Thorpe in one of the most anticipated showdowns of the Games.

And what would an American Olympic team be without a sentimental favourite? This year’s candidate is Rulon Gardner, who stunned the wrestling world by winning gold four years ago and has since been to hell and back. The Greco-Roman heavyweight from Wisconsin pulled off what is generally considered the greatest upset in wrestling history when he defeated three-time Olympic champion Aleksandr Karelin in Sydney, a victory that instantly transformed him into an American folk hero.

Two years later, in winter 2002, a snowmobile accident left Gardner stranded in freezing weather for 17 hours. Frostbite caused a toe on his right foot to be amputated. Earlier this year, he was thrown from his motor cycle after colliding with a car. Although he was not wearing a helmet, he walked away with only minor injuries.

Nonetheless, it has been a long road back to the Olympics. Television viewers can be sure that NBC, the network broadcasting the Games in the US, will be sharing his uplifting story with them (and setting it to appropriately mawkish music) more than once during the Athens fortnight.

Earlier this year, Herman Frazier, US chef de mission for Athens, and other officials, confidently predicted that the US would leave Greece with at least 100 medals (the US last reached triple digits in Atlanta in 1996). That may happen indeed prove to be the case, but, at this point, the Americans will be satisfied just to perform well and get in and out of Athens without incident.

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