Medal spotlight on US: Stars are out to earn their stripes at the London 2012 Olympics

Spotlight on the main medal contenders: The track-and-field powerhouse spluttered in Beijing but with the world's best athlete leading the push – decathlete Ashton Eaton – the USA hope to double their medal tally

Thankfully the coach driver taking the USA track and field team to morning training had no difficulty locating the Alexander Stadium on the north side of Birmingham. He pulled into the car park, past the G4S and West Midlands Police ring of steel, just about on time.

There was a far from full complement of athletes from what the Birmingham City Council banners proclaimed to be "the most successful track and field team on the planet". Kerron Clement, the 400m hurdler who tweeted despairingly about the starred-and-striped squadron getting lost on an ultra-marathon journey from Heathrow to the Athletes' Village on Monday, was down in Cardiff for the Welsh International Meeting.

The sprinters Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin and Allyson Felix and the reigning Olympic 400m champion, LaShawn Merritt, were heading for Monte Carlo for tonight's Diamond League meeting. Still, for those already in situ at the US track and field team training base, it ought to be something of a home from home. Carl Lewis hails from Birmingham – Birmingham, Alabama, albeit.

Lewis won nine Olympic golds as a sprinter and long-jumper – one more than the last six entire British athletics squads have managed in total, stretching back to the Seoul Olympics of 1988.

The United States have long been the powerhouse nation of the Olympic Games in all sports. They lead the all-time table for the summer Games by a distance, with 2,298 medals – 930 gold, 728 silver and 639 bronze.

The highest percentage of their medals have come from the showpiece arena of track and field, some 29 per cent, 738 in total – 311 gold, 238 silver and 189 bronze.

They topped the athletics table again in Beijing four years ago, but only just , winning 23 medals – seven gold, nine silver and seven bronze. Jamaica, with their stranglehold on the men's and women's sprints, won six golds, the same as Russia. The US track-and-field gold tally was lower in Munich in 1972 and in Montreal four years later – six on both occasions – but the men's squad only gained four golds in the Chinese capital, the lowest in their history, and 14 medals in total, the second-lowest ever.

Pole-vaulter Brad Walker was one of the US men's stars who failed to earn their stripes in Beijing. He started as favourite, having won the world title the year before and cleared a national-record height of 6.04m on the eve of the Games, but was unable to register a clearance during a marathon qualifying competition that stretched beyond midnight. "It was devastating," the 2007 world champion recalled, after training in the Birmingham rain. "I went to Beijing with the highest jump of the year and I left without any hardware. But I think I learned valuable lessons to carry forward. Last week I jumped 5.90m, my best for four years. This is a new opportunity and a new time. I call it a kind of redemption."

The medal target in London for the combined US men's and women's track and field squad is 30. "There's a real opportunity for that," head coach Andrew Valmon, a 4x400m relay gold medallist at the 1988 and 1992 Games, said. "We have a strong team. Some extraordinary athletes are going to be performing for the US in London."

The most extraordinary member of the 126-strong US team is Ashton Eaton. At the trials meeting in Eugene, Oregon, last month the 24-year-old opened the decathlon with a 100m clocking of 10.21sec and proceeded to rack up a world-record tally of 9,039 points. "It doesn't mean that much to the rest of the world but to me it's my whole world," he said. It was a telling observation. In absolute performance terms, Eaton is indisputably the greatest all-round track-and-field athlete the world has ever seen. And yet he could walk down most main streets back home – and indeed around the globe – without turning a head.

It is little wonder that he posed naked for last month's edition of ESPN Magazine. He is in need of exposure – the kind of elevated platform that only the quadrennial Olympics affords to American track-and-field competitors.

When the athletics programme begins in London two weeks today, the world will be focusing on the Jamaican battle for supremacy between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake and the domestic spotlight will be trained on Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Co. There will be a liberal sprinkling of US stars shining brightly, though – not just Eaton but the emerging new force in the 110m hurdles, Aries Merritt, who has twice come within 0.06sec of the world record with a 12.93sec clocking, and Allyson Felix, who clocked a scorching 21.69sec at the trials, breaking a 28-year-old meet record that stood to Florence Griffith-Joyner.

The United States have, of course, already won one Olympic race of sorts. Last week Debbie Dunn , a member of the relay squad, became the first selected athlete to be withdrawn from the Games because of a positive drugs test.

"I don't know too much about the circumstances so I don't want to comment too much on it," Walker said. "But as a sport in general I think track and field has cleaned up a ton in the last decade.

"There's always going to be the bad guys because it's an individual deal and people are making their own decisions. It's just like people out on the street who are creating crime – it's a poor decision made by an athlete to go that route."

Expect Phelps and Missy Franklin to lead American gold rush in pool

They may sport one of the silliest uniforms at the opening ceremony with their Ralph Lauren berets – perhaps they were made when Paris was favourite to host the 2012 Games – but there is unlikely to be any laughing from the rest of the world once the US team gets into action.

China forced them off the top of the medal table in Beijing for the first time since 1992 but they will almost certainly regain it in London. The USA's record in recent Games has been astonishingly consistent. Apart from a spike offered by hosting the Atlanta Games in 1996, they have won 36 or 37 gold medals at each of the last six Games.

Carl Lewis describes England as a home from home for the team, so expect to see big numbers. The bulk of America's gold rush will come in the Aquatics Centre. The swimmers have provided on average a third of the total number of golds over recent Games – the phenomenon that is Michael Phelps collected a quarter all on his own in Beijing.

It will be Phelps again who leads the US challenge, although he will not be taking another eight back to Baltimore. The 27-year-old will compete in seven events and in a number of those he will have to see off the formidable challenge of Ryan Lochte, his team-mate who is vying for the title of most decorated swimmer of 2012.

In terms of quantity of medals won, they will face fierce competition from Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old with size 13 feet, who is going for seven golds. No woman has ever competed in so many events at a single Games before – she will be one of the stars of London 2012.

Elsewhere, the two basketball teams would be a laughing stock back home if they did not claim gold. Beach volleyball, volleyball and the women's football are likely gold providers. But the team chosen for the cover of the Olympic issue of 'Sports Illustrated' is the women gymnasts. They are led by 17-year-old world champion Jordyn Wieber, about whom comparisons are being drawn with Nadia Comaneci. Like Franklin, the US team's other wunderkind will head back to school after the Games, and will probably have an Olympic gold or two to take in.

Robin Scott-Elliot

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