Team USA confidently eyed top spot on the Rio Olympics medals table on Friday after Russia’s contingent was slashed over a doping scandal, paving the way for a bumper American haul.
Russia’s losses include their entire track and field team, an area where the United States will capitalise but which is not a strength for China, their nearest challengers on the overall table in 2012.
As US secretary of state John Kerry visited the American track and field and volleyball teams on Friday, the mood in the camp was expectant.
“You are a huge example to the world,” Kerry told about 50 hushed athletes as at least one of them, overcome by the occasion, wiped away tears.
“Everybody in the United States of America is proud of you. I know you’ve set out to win medals, but everybody here is a winner already.”
Russia finished second on the tally for athletics medals in 2012, behind the United States who led the overall 2012 Games table by eight gold medals from China.
Russia’s contingent is their smallest in more than a century after recriminations over the discovery of a large-scale, state-sponsored doping conspiracy.
The US athletes also received a surprise boost in the form of swimming great Mark Spitz, who travelled with Kerry and addressed the team at their training base.
Spitz won an astonishing seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a record that stood for 36 years until it was broken by Michael Phelps’ haul of eight in 2008.
“If you have an event that’s only one event and you get a medal, you are just as important as Michael, because we are Olympians forever,” Spitz said.
On Friday, the top story on the Team USA website was about two separate projections that the 555-strong American contingent will top the medals table.
And Ashley Spencer, the hotly tipped 400m hurdler, said the American athletes knew they were capable of coming out on top.
“We have some of the world’s best athletes,” she told AFP. “Once we come together and at the end of it all when we look back, if everyone handles their business, I think we could be at the top.”
Spencer added: “Everyone’s ready to go.”