Preparing for a hostile reception in Athens

NEW YORK – The US baseball and soccer teams are out, and the basketball team is no longer a lock. Hostile crowds await, the threat of terrorism lurks, and other countries are catching up everywhere. Six months before the Olympics, US team officials should have every reason to be worried about medal hopes in Athens. Instead, they believe American athletes can do even better than the 97 medals they brought back from Sydney in 2000. And they’re bringing everything from sports psychologists to home-cooked meals to Athens to get it done. «We think it’s important to win the medal count,» US Olympic Committee chief executive Jim Scherr said. «It drives our efforts on a daily basis.» The USOC has set an ambitious goal of winning 100 medals in Athens, which on the surface seems rather unlikely considering the challenging environment US athletes will face in Athens and their recent performances around the world. «It’s not going to be a warm and friendly environment,» said Steve Roush, the USOC’s director of sports partnerships. «We’re preparing for a hostile environment.» If the experience of the US soccer team in Mexico earlier this month is any indication, American athletes have every reason to be concerned about Athens. The boos and whistles nearly drowned out the national anthem in Guadalajara, but that was just the beginning. Midway through the February 10 match, the home fans taunted the American players with chants of «Osama! Osama!» as Mexico knocked the US team out of the Olympics. «You have to realize that people hate Americans,» said Stacy Dragila, who won the women’s pole vault gold in Sydney. Because of that, the most important members of the US Olympic team may not know the difference between a javelin and a shot put, or how deep the swimming pool is. They are the sports psychologists who will accompany the American team to Athens. There will be up to 10 of them for the 560 or so athletes, and their mission will be to calm fears and insulate athletes from outside distractions. «They need to be prepared mentally for what might arise,» Scherr said. The sports psychologists are part of a wide-ranging US plan to keep athletes focused. As part of that plan, the United States has rented an Athens college complete with dorms, gyms, an Olympic-size pool, and track and field complex. There, athletes will be able to train in seclusion, and stay overnight away from the Olympic Village ahead of competition. Already, American athletes are expressing worries about being targets of terrorists, and they will be competing in a country where there is a strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment. The sports psychologists will have their hands full no matter what. «A lot of it will be to help athletes believe in themselves, trust their training and preparation and separate out what they can control from the things they can’t control,» said JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a Stanford sports psychologist and author of «Your Performing Edge.» «They need to control their perception and how it affects them.» Some sports are preparing for a possibly hostile environment by scheduling overseas competitions leading up to the Olympics. The US men’s basketball team, for example, will play in Belgrade against defending world champion Serbia-Montenegro and in Istanbul against Turkey. Even in the best of circumstances, America’s Olympic team will have a difficult task of repeating its performance four years ago in Sydney – much less surpassing it. Americans won 97 medals – 40 of them gold – in Sydney, nearly matching the 44 golds and 101 total medals won in 1996 in Atlanta. In both those Games, though, Americans were not only favored in many events but were the favorites of the friendly crowds. The US is already down a probable medal, with the elimination of the defending gold medal baseball team. Swimmers will be severely tested to win the 33 medals they won in Sydney, and the US boxing team will be hard-pressed to win any medals. A sport-by-sport analysis by the USOC suggests that the United States is likely to be locked in a three-way race for medal supremacy with Russia and China in Athens, with Germany close behind. According to the projections, the United States would win 34 gold medals and a total of 85 medals, while Russia would have 31 golds and 86 medals and China 28 golds and 81 medals. That is well short of the 100-medal goal set by the USOC, but officials say they still could reach that goal if everything breaks right. Scherr said the task will be made easier if athletes feel more at home. «We know through our experience at the last several Games that the ability to create a home team environment is critical to our success,» he said. «The more we can make it a home competition, the better we will do.»