London 2012: How are Britain's rivals doing?
Next year may be a home Olympics for the British but Team GB are not the only ones hoping London 2012 will be their greatest Games ever.
The British Olympic Association and UK Sport tell us everything is on track, Britain's athletes are "better-prepared than ever to succeed" and fourth place in the medal table is the least they expect. But GB's rivals are racing to outdo them at every turn.
With one year to go, projected medal tables - where statisticians distil data from major championships to decide how the Games would go were they staged today - are coming out of the woodwork.
Going by the most comprehensive of these virtual tables, the British are no longer the comfortable fourth they finished at Beijing 2008. They are fifth.
These projected medal tables are curiosities at best and easily misleading.
But they serve as reminders that for every British Olympic hopeful throwing the kitchen sink at a medal, there are a dozen foreign athletes looking to defend titles, right prior Olympic wrongs or make their first mark on the world stage.
The virtual medal table compiled by statistics company Infostrada, and published by The Times, USA Today and The Australian, claims to meticulously sweep all sports and competitions to produce a definitive guide where performances gain or lose importance according to how recently they occurred, where the athlete finished and the prestige of the event.
The conclusion? At the start of July 2011, the United States led with 37 gold medals to second-placed China's 30. Russia are third - as they were at Beijing 2008 - with 25 projected golds based on current performances.
Then it gets interesting. Germany have usurped Britain in fourth with 18 golds to fifth-placed GB's 15. One gold medal further back are France and Japan. Australia, sixth at the last Olympics, languish in eighth with a mere 10 golds.
You can see the full projected table on the USA Today website. If the real London 2012 table ends up remotely like it, I project I'll eat my hat. But it's as good a statistical guide as anyone will get.
So how do some of the nations most likely to rub shoulders with Britain feel with a year left to prepare?
Australia may look like they are lagging behind but, in the words of Sky News Australia's James Bracey, they have just pocketed "the country's biggest sporting result in decades" - Cadel Evans' triumph in cycling's Tour de France. Can that kickstart an Antipodean sprint for the 2012 finish?
"Cadel was the world champion in 2009 and he's now the Tour de France champion. He'll be dead keen to add an Olympic gold medal in the time trial," says Bracey.
"There's a lot of hope for Australia, especially when you throw in Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim coming back in the swimming.
"There's always a hidden challenge between the Aussies and GB, and deep down, the Australian Olympic Committee would love to finish fourth in the medal tally. That's a huge ask - almost ridiculous, per capita, to even ponder it."
The Australians are smarting post-Beijing and working overtime to make good their losses. Forget eighth in the projected medal table: sixth in 2008 was not good enough for Australia or Bracey.
"Beijing was a wake-up call in terms of funding and support in some sports where Australia had slipped away. We see London as real chance to bring the team back.
"Cycling was a massive loss for Australia in 2008. That GB started to pick up the medals added salt to the wound. Swimming too: that's the core of Australian sport but the men really underperformed in Beijing.
"Now there is pride at stake. The men have made pacts among the team heading to Shanghai for this week's World Championships, they want to start getting their pride back in a sport where the girls are bringing home all the bacon.
"There will be a major overall improvement on Beijing for Australia, but you can't lose sight of the competition out there. The Chinese were phenomenal in Beijing; the US, too; and Britain with home-ground advantage. That gave Australia 16 golds in 2000, finishing fourth. You can't emphasise how important that is."
Ian Thorpe hopes to lead Australia's male swimmers to better things in London. Photo: AP
As in Britain, funding for Olympic sports in Australia has increased, with expectations Down Under that Beijing will be consigned to history. In Moscow, BBC Russian Service correspondent Rafael Saakov says the same is happening - not because of Beijing, but Vancouver.
"Here in Russia, people don't see much difference between the summer and winter Olympics," says Saakov.
"In Beijing the result was not too bad [third with 23 gold medals, 13 behind the United States] but Vancouver 2010 was a big failure. Now everybody is waiting for revenge in London. The Russian Olympic Committee wants 25 gold medals in London, and 75 medals in all.
"They say they need to be in the top three and they think the main competition is the US, China and Britain. So every year, the financial support from the government has increased. The ministry of sport says 1,500 sportsmen are now preparing for London."
There has been talk that fourth place is not ambitious enough for a British team whose funding and performance charts are ablaze in green lights. Why not go for third place?
Good luck. Russia, the incumbent, believes a new generation of its sports stars will rapidly halt any talk of losing grip on third.
Says Saakov: "After Beijing, it changed. The team totally changed and not a lot of the people who competed in Beijing will be there in London. We have new talents in the team.
"Yelena Isinbayeva is coming back, she is a huge star and it's about 90% certain that she will win. But there is a big swimming tradition in Russia and a lot of hope with new swimmers there.
"People also expect Aliya Mustafina from artistic gymnastics to do well. She is a newcomer to the Games and 100% a gold-medal competitor. She has made a big impression and is already the world and European champion.
"And in high jump, there are huge difficulties even deciding the Russian team in the men's event. The Olympic champion from Beijing didn't qualify for the national team last week."
That's leaving aside, as most Brits might, Russian ambitions in race walking and rhythmic gymnastics.
If Russia maintain third then Germany, fifth behind Britain in Beijing, may be the likeliest threat to fourth. Step forward Sven Busch, sports editor at German news agency the DPA.
"London 2012 is a very big deal," he says. "I'm sure it's a bigger deal in Britain than it is here, but everybody's talking about it being one year to go."
Germany is sometimes said to be almost a medal-for-medal match for Britain at the summer Olympics. Now, where Britain has UK Sport's backing and various "elite" or "podium" funding categories for each sport, Busch says Germany has established Top-Team 2012, a funding drive to prioritise its medal hopes.
"There are currently 174 athletes in it, and they get preferential treatment. You have to be in that pool to get special funding and their preparation is very good.
"The sports where the Germans should be doing well are athletics - where they are coming on strong - swimming, shooting, rowing, gymnastics, field hockey and equestrian.
"The biggest star of the team is a horse," he adds, referring to a dressage horse named Totilas, an equine superstar "signed" from the Netherlands for an apparent fee well above £10m (I've met him). "That horse is a big deal."
Totilas, the new saviour of German Olympic ambitions at London 2012? Photo: Reuters
And yet, fourth place in the medal table doesn't seem to motivate Busch. Where Bracey boasts "there's always a fairytale with Australia" and presents a list of Aussie athletes who are "the tip of the iceberg", and Saakov reels off ranks of Russian rhythmic gymnasts each ready to make third place theirs, Busch almost laughs at the suggestion the medal table matters.
"Well, this is not the answer you want," he says, "but the German officials have always said they would like to defend their top-five finish from Beijing.
"If you look at the number of nations capable of winning medals, it's rising with every Olympics. They are very cautious with medal predictions, and they would be ecstatic if they could match that."
And, even with that approach, the virtual medal table has Germany three precious gold medals ahead. Does that matter now?
Will it matter at the closing ceremony?