US Olympic Track & Field Team 2012: 5 Best Bets to Win Gold for USA in London

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIJune 29, 2012

US Olympic Track & Field Team 2012: 5 Best Bets to Win Gold for USA in London

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    With the 2012 U.S. Olympic track team beginning to take shape this week out in Eugene, it’s high time we took stock of America’s medal hopefuls.

    And what better place to start than at the top?

    Leave the silver and bronze for tomorrow, today we’re running through the American men and women expected to top the podium this summer in London.

    Not that there’s any pressure…

Ashton Eaton (Decathlon)

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    Coming into the summer, most pundits agreed that 24-year-old wunderkind Ashton Eaton had the makings of a world-champion decathlete.

    Just not so soon, and certainly not with such emphasis.

    Eaton undoubtedly shed the “up-and-comer” label with a historic performance at U.S. Olympic Trials, breaking Roman Sebrle’s 11-year-old decathlon world record and branding himself the clear gold-medal favorite.

    Eaton’s development has been so rapid, it’s possible to think he could break that record again in London. Even if he doesn’t, it would seem the rest of the field—which includes fellow American and two-time defending world champion Trey Hardee—has little chance to catch him.

Sanya Richards-Ross (400-Meter Sprint)

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    It’s hard to find flaw with the season Sanya Richards-Ross has put together.

    She owns the world’s best time in the 200-meter sprint and the top two times at 400 meters. During U.S. Trials in Eugene, she ran the fastest 400 meters since 2007.

    The only holdup? We’ve been here before. And it didn’t end well.

    Richards-Ross entered Beijing on a similarly styled roll. Expected to win gold in the 400, Richards-Ross started hot in the final but couldn’t keep her own pace, wilting down the backstretch and settling for bronze. From the outside in, it looked like a classic combination of big-race nerves and poor tactics.

    Four years later, Richards-Ross is still the event’s premier talent. With an assist from experience, she should be on her way to gold.

Brittney Reese (Long Jump)

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    Long jump can be a difficult event to predict (see: Beamon, Bob), but Brittney Reese has made things mighty easy on the oddsmakers these past four years.

    The Mississippi native has won the long jump competition at every world championship—indoor and outdoor—since her disappointing fifth-place finish in Beijing.

    If that wasn’t distinguished enough, Reese already has the world’s best mark this year and is the only athlete with two distances among the top five.

LaShawn Merritt (400-Meter Sprint)

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    LaShawn Merritt finished second in the 400 meters at the 2011 World Championships, his worst result at a major international competition since 2007.

    But what seems at first glance like a sign of decline is quite the opposite when accounting for context.

    Consider that it had been just over a month since Merritt’s reinstatement by the IAAF following a 21-month doping ban (side note: Merritt’s positive test was triggered by a banned substance found in the OTC penis-enlargement medication Extenze).

    Remarkably, it had taken the 2008 Olympic champion mere weeks to reach elite racing form.

    A year later, even that little bit of rust has worn off. Merritt holds the season’s top two times and looks like a good bet to defend his Olympic crown against a field of young, untested challengers.

Christian Taylor (Triple Jump)

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    Christian Taylor won gold in the triple jump at the 2011 World Championships, and shows no signs of giving it back.

    Taylor posted the season’s longest jump in early June and leads the field at U.S. Trials heading into Saturday’s final.

    If anyone catches him in London, it’ll likely be former University of Florida teammate Will Claye.

    Claye nipped Taylor for gold at the 2012 World Indoor Championships and recently added to his Olympic schedule by qualifying for Team USA in the long jump.