How will NZ fare at the Olympics?

By Kevin Norquay

BEIJING - Beijing is set to be the most-medalled Olympic Games for New Zealand in 20 years, barring a sporting catastrophe of All Black proportions.

New Zealand won 13 medals in smoggy Seoul in 1988, slipped to 10 in Barcelona, six in Atlanta, and four in Sydney, then grabbed five in Athens.

Athens provided three golden moments, when rowing's Evers-Swindell twins, cyclist Sarah Ulmer and triathlete Hamish Carter raised the New Zealand flag.

But the charm of those victories obscured a medal tally marginally better than that of Sydney, a dark Games which prompted a rethink of how New Zealand went about Olympic sports.

Only four athletes went to Athens having won a medal at world level in the preceding year, a figure that has risen to 11 this time around.

Will that translate into more medals at Beijing? Sport and Recreation New Zealand (Sparc) chief executive Peter Miskimmin says yes, but won't commit himself to numbers.

NZPA has no such fear, so here goes.

ON THE DAIS:

Rowing
If all unfolds as scripted, August 16 will be New Zealand's greatest day in a century of Olympic Games, with the Beijing rowing course bedecked in golden Kiwis. Triple world champion single sculler Mahe Drysdale is the best hope for gold, and he has plenty of backup. Double scullers Nathan Cohen and 2000 Olympic gold medallist Rob Waddell look good together, though their lack of time as a combination could be exposed. Athens victors Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell are struggling to recapture their golden glow. After world silver last year, they failed to reach a World Cup final in their last pre-Games regatta. Men's pair Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater have won at the highest level, as have coxless four Carl Meyer, James Dallinger, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, though their recent form has been less impressive.

Prediction: gold, silver, bronze

Yachting
A squad that is a mix of battle-hardened experience and youthful exuberance is touted as one of the strongest ever to attend a Games - though that's what was said about Athens, and that squad came home with their sails deflated. Stunned by two disqualifications in Athens, former Olympic boardsailing champion Barbara Kendall scrambled back to fifth, and is always in the medal mix. Boardsailor Tom Ashley, Dan Slater in the Finn, Andrew Murdoch in the Laser, or Radial sailor Jo Aleh have all finished in the top two in international events over the past year.

Prediction: gold, silver, three bronze

Athletics
Imposing thrower Valerie Vili won the world title last year, capping a career in which she has made a habit of hitting her rivals with her best shot at the right time. Nothing is certain though, Vili is ranked only third in 2008 - two Belarus shot putters have thrown further. Gutsy distance runner Kimberley Smith has broken the national 5000m and 10,000m records this year. While she is ranked No 2 over 10,000m in 2008, she is to focus on the 5000m at Beijing. Canny 1500m runner Nick Willis should make the final, where he will need the race to unfold perfectly to threaten the podium.

Prediction: gold

BMX
Sarah Walker is the ride-away leader at the top of the women's world list, while Marc Willers is fourth, though he is a former No 1. While one crash could unsaddle their dreams, conversely both could emerge as folk heroes to young and old.

Prediction: gold, bronze

Triathlon
Lycra-coated quality abounds. Athens silver medallist Bevan Docherty and Kris Gemmell are real prospects in the men's race, while Sam Warriner, Debbie Tanner and Andrea Hewitt are proven class in the women's. Problem is, dominant world No 1s Spaniard Javier Gomez and Emma Snowsill of Australia could prove as hard to get past as the Great Wall.

Prediction: silver, bronze

Equestrian
An empty-handed Athens was a heap of horse droppings to a team that had won medals at every Olympics since Los Angeles, 20 years earlier. With all-time great Mark Todd galloping out of retirement on the inexperienced Gandalf, hopes in the three-day event have soared. If veteran Andrew Nicholson and proven-performer Heelan Tompkins turn in their best, anything is possible. Showjumper Daniel Meech threatened the medals in Athens.

Prediction: bronze

BUBBLING UNDER

Cycling
Forget the road, look to the track. Points rider Greg Henderson has shown time and again he has what it takes, while individual pursuiters Hayden Roulston and Alison Shanks are on the up. Disappointing at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, the team pursuit squad have a shot if they produce their best. Catherine Cheatley was third in the world points race last year, though has been troubled by a leg ailment since.

Prediction: no medals.

Hockey
New Zealand have over-achieved at past Olympics, with the men winning gold in 1976, and the women going close to a medal in Sydney in 2000. Similar overachievement will be required in Beijing.

Prediction: no medals

Kayaking
A driven man, Ben Fouhy took a sullen silver at Athens, after winning the world crown in 2003. He should feature in the K1 1000m final. Steven Ferguson, curtailed by a back injury in Athens, is back for his third Olympics, with a final slot in the men's K2 1000m with Michael Walker the likely outcome.

Prediction: no medals

Mountainbike
Two months ago Commonwealth Games silver medallist Rosara Joseph was 30th at the women's world championships, and Kashi Leuchs 47th in the men's. But Joseph has been in the world top five, so could improve rapidly from a recent ankle injury.

Prediction: no medals

Swimming
Fearless Melbourne Commonwealth Games champion Moss Burmester is a medal prospect in the men's 200m butterfly, an event dominated by brilliant American Michael Phelps. Medley swimmer Dean Kent, and the versatile Helen Norfolk could make their presence felt.

Prediction: no medals

Tennis
Smashing efforts at the French Open and Wimbledon have volleyed Marina Erakovic into the world top 50. She won a late call up to Beijing, where a kind draw would help.

Prediction: no medals

PLUCKY BATTLERS

Badminton
Singles player John Moody will do well to reach the third round, as will Craig Cooper and Renee Flavell to get to the mixed doubles quarterfinals.

Prediction: no medals

Basketball
On world rankings, the Tall Ferns can expect to win only one of their pool games. A top 10 finish would be an achievement.

Prediction: no medals

Football
Two sides picked with one eye on London 2012.

Prediction: no medals

Shooting
Trap shooter Nadine Stanton briefly looked a medal hope in Athens. Commonwealth Games trap gold medallist Graeme Eade has good credentials.

Prediction: no medals.

Slalom, kayaking
A medal to Luuka Jones, the first New Zealand woman to take on the sport at an Olympics, would be a pleasant surprise.

Prediction: no medals

Synchronised swimming
Sisters Lisa and Nina Daniels won bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. This is lightyears harder.

Prediction: no medals

Taekwondo
Olympic rookies Matthew Beach, Logan Campbell and Robin Cheong will do well to notch a win. Kind draw crucial.

Prediction: no medals

WeightliftingA starter's chance only for Richard Patterson and Mark Spooner.

Prediction: no medals

MEDAL TOTAL: four gold, three silver, seven bronze

(Warning: in 2004 NZPA optimistically over-estimated the Athens medal haul (three gold, two silver) by picking four gold, two silver, and four bronze.

- NZPA

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