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Olympic sports' biggest events in 2011 - and who to watch

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Ollie Williams | 21:14 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

Tickets for the London Olympics may now be on sale, but the athletes involved still have more than a year's frantic action to get through before the Games begin.

That means there are plenty of opportunities to see world-class Olympic sport this year - with tickets for most being easier and cheaper to come by, while many will have extensive coverage from BBC Sport.

And we now know which events will matter most for Britain's Olympic hopefuls en route to 2012, because GB funding body UK Sport has released medal targets for every Olympic sport in 2011. Each target is based on the single most important event in that sport this year, so if it's on UK Sport's list, then it's as big as it gets.

The London Olympics are of course the climax to all this activity but, if you start following these sports now, you'll get to know the storylines and the protagonists in time for 2012. Their successes or failures at the Games will mean more if you've seen the work that went into getting there.

Here, month by month, are the events on UK Sport's list - coupled with their medal targets, the views of UK Sport director of performance Peter Keen, and what to look out for with the Olympics in mind. (There's a brief explanatory note about these targets at the bottom of this blog.)

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UK Sport sets top-four target for 2012 Olympics

March

Track cycling's World Championships begin proceedings next week, in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn, with live coverage on the BBC. The UCI, cycling's world governing body, has changed the Olympic programme for 2012 - changing some of the events, and limiting nations to one individual (or team) per event - so Britain's humongous Beijing 2008 haul cannot be repeated in their home velodrome, but GB remain a powerful force in world cycling.

That said - after Britain finished second to Australia in the medal table at the 2010 Worlds in Denmark - GB performance director Dave Brailsford is keen to set Britain up as challengers rather than defenders of any world cycling crown.

"For us it's a real positive to be going into the World Championships as the hunters rather than the hunted," said Brailsford earlier this week. "The pressure is really on the Australians and the French to deliver, and it's a nice feeling for us to be going out there as the challengers."

Some big names are absent from the GB team - for example, Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas are out of the team pursuit and back preparing for a summer of road cycling - but that gives a chance for other talents to stake a claim for Olympic places, while sprint stalwarts like Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy will lead the charge in the Netherlands.

March ends with wrestling's European Championships, but there is no medal target for the British freestyle team (and there is no GB representation in the other discipline, Greco-Roman).

CYCLING
2011 medal target: Five to 10 (includes BMX, road and mountain biking alongside track)
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Six (achieved 14)
2009: Five to 10 (five)
2010: Five to 10 (10)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "For sports like cycling, we would never expect the sport to assign the task of winning a medal to a specific individual - unless they are genuinely the only British athlete in the event, with a shot at it. But we know enough about the individuals who are likely to do it - so it's not an exercise in theories, these targets use pretty strong evidence that we are where we need to be."

May

May begins with taekwondo's World Championships in Korea. Previously a sport which barely merited a mention when it came to British Olympic hopes, this is now home to a wealth of talent, led by Aaron Cook, Sarah Stevenson and Bianca Walkden - all of whom are riding high in the world rankings. Cook, 20 years old, recently told the BBC he's aiming to be "one of the greatest of all time". The likes of Youth Olympic star Jade Jones and Martin Stamper are also winning medals at senior world level, lending taekwondo an impressive strength in depth.

The Netherlands hosts the table tennis World Championships, in which British players are unlikely to threaten - GB's finest being ranked well outside the top 100 - and hence there is no medal target from UK Sport.

But there was recent good news for British table tennis when the British Olympic Association announced they had proven themselves worthy of the six host-nation places on offer at the Games. The question now is who gets them, and that scrap for selection is worth watching as the year unfolds.

TAEKWONDO
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (achieved one)
2009: Four (none)
2010: Two to four (four)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "Taekwondo is an excellent example of a sport that is starting to put down the real fundamentals of a world-class programme. They've had exceptional individuals but they are now being pursued by talented new people, there has been some spectacular talent transfer, and it's a prime example of the benefit of five years of quality investment in a programme rather than a unique individual at a place and time."

June

Beach volleyball hosts its men's World Championships in Rome, but there will be no GB participation and, as in recent years, there is no expectation of British volleyball medals - indoor or beach - this year.

Nor is there a medal target for British basketball, but the GB women head into the European Championships in Poland on a high, having recently been granted the green light by world governing body Fiba to compete at the Olympics. That decision rewarded years in which the status of British basketball has been transformed, mostly through hard graft.

BASKETBALL
2011 medal target: No medal target (and none set in recent years)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "Basketball is not about trying to win medals in London, it's about trying to create a platform of excellence around the opportunity that Olympic basketball presents. On the basis of the evidence, and the quality of the work done to create competitive teams, it was a perfectly reasonable expectation to see the sport given the nod."

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British trials: Spofforth pips Simmonds for backstroke 100m

July

July is a packed month of Olympic sport and archery's World Championships start that month, in Turin. The British team has recently struggled to hit its medal targets and, while qualification for London 2012 isn't an issue as GB are entitled to a full Olympic squad as hosts, there is still a scrap to get into the team. Watch out for Nicky Hunt, a world champion in compound archery (which isn't an Olympic discipline) who is trying to swap to the recurve format (which is) in time for 2012.

Swimming, diving, synchro and water polo all hold their World Championships in Shanghai from 16 July, under the umbrella of world governing body Fina. Last week's British trials gave us a good impression of the Brits who are in form, with Rebecca Adlington taking a trio of titles to lead that pack.

Keri-Anne Payne, Fran Halsall (returning from injury), David Davies and Liam Tancock were others who made the headlines at the trials - which help to form the team for Shanghai - while Gemma Spofforth has the edge over GB arch-rival (and good friend) Lizzie Simmonds in the backstroke events. Watch the Worlds to gauge Adlington's progress on a world stage and see if Simmonds can bounce back, plus it's our first chance since Rome 2009 to really evaluate British talent against the world's best, probably in the form of American and Australian swimmers.

Diving's new partnership between Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield is something to look out for on the Shanghai platform board, while it's to be hoped that Monique Gladding makes a comeback from a nasty head injury sustained in Russia in time to compete.

Finishing July are the modern pentathlon European Championships, to be held on British soil in Medway. The story here is the intense battle to get the two spots that will probably be available to British women at the Olympic Games - the leading contenders being Heather Fell, Mhairi Spence, Freyja Prentice, Samantha Murray and Katy Burke.

ARCHERY
2011 medal target: None to two
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Two (none achieved)
2009: No target set
2010: None to one (none)

SWIMMING
2011 medal target: Five to eight
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Three (six achieved)
2009: Three to six (seven)
2010: 35 (33)

DIVING
2011 medal target: None to one
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (none achieved)
2009: None to one (one)
2010: None to one (none)

MODERN PENTATHLON
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (one achieved)
2009: None to one (none)
2010: None to one (none)

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Triathlon: Brownlee gears up for toughest year

August

Triathlon's World Championship Series - a seven-stage event to crown the world champion - begins to build to its climax this month, with the sixth stage taking place in London on the 2012 Olympic course in Hyde Park.

Alistair Brownlee has long been the one to watch for Britain, but don't rule out his younger brother Jonny, who is the Under-23 world champion and hot on his elder sibling's heels. In the women's event, Helen Jenkins is Britain's leading hope.

Badminton's World Championships come to London in mid-August. This is a sport which has had plenty of off-court problems to deal with in recent times. Disappointing results at last week's All-England Championships, where no Briton made it past the second round, make it all the more important that someone makes a mark on the World Championships. Men's singles star Rajiv Ouseph is worth watching both at the Worlds and, if he makes it, at the Olympics - but in both cases he'll be relying on a kind draw to give him a chance at a medal.

Sprint canoeing is a dark horse for 2012. Very few people seem to have picked up on quite how strong the British team is - Ed McKeever is a world champion, Tim Brabants is a defending Olympic champion, Liam Heath and Jon Schofield are a pair to watch out for and Rachel Cawthornis Britain's leading woman, again with a strong medal chance.

Brabants took a year out after winning gold in Beijing to return to his work as a doctor, and now has a young child to juggle with his Olympic training, while mild-mannered Cawthorn transforms into a "ball of fire" on the water according to her team-mates. The BBC will have coverage of the World Championships in Hungary.

The World Athletics Championships end August and stretch into early September. There is a sense of cautious optimism around British track and field right now, but it's important not to get carried away as memories of Beijing, where only Christine Ohuruogu won a gold medal (in the women's 400m), are still fresh.

The British team knows it must improve for 2012, and the signs are promising. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis and triple jumper Phillips Idowu are likely to be the stars of Team GB at the Games, but the Worlds are the ideal stage for other members of the sizeable British squad to make their names. Take a look at Tom Fordyce's blog from Paris for the latest on British preparations following the recent Euro Indoors.

England's hockey teams - which will make up the bulk of the GB squads for 2012 - are on the up, with major medal successes for both men and women in 2010. The EuroHockey tournament in Germany, in mid-August, is the biggest event for both teams this year, and one in which both expect a medal.

Britain now look like realistic prospects for medals in hockey at the London Olympics, a far cry from disappointing performances in Beijing and the failure of the women to even qualify at Athens 2004.

August continues with the World Judo in France. As has been the case for the past couple of years, the major British medal hopes rest with Euan Burton (who's looking to do better than a bronze medal) and Karina Bryant. But look out for Ashley McKenzie, the new European Under-23 champion in the 60kg category, who is registering some impressive results this year.

Taking us from August to September are the World Championships of rowing, at the Bled course in Slovenia, with full BBC coverage. Most people know British rowing is steeped in Olympic tradition from the past two decades, and that looks set to continue in 2012.

The return of Greg Searle, a 1992 Olympic gold medallist who won his first world medal since 1997 last November, has been at the fore of our coverage over the past 12 months, but there are plenty of other exciting stories. Look at Andy Hodge and Pete Reed - who must choose between continuing their lengthy battle to overhaul New Zealand in the men's pair or returning to the four, where they won gold in Beijing - or Katherine Grainger, looking to upgrade Olympic silver to gold at the fourth time of asking. GB team member Annabel Vernon is also blogging for the BBC throughout the build-up to 2012.

Not to forget, in a packed month, the shotgun World Championships in Belgrade (a month after the European Championships in the same place). Britain's Peter Wilson recently earned a quota place at the Games in the men's double trap, while Charlotte Kerwood is balancing Olympic training with a planning application squabble back home, where she's trying to get her local shooting range extended to Olympic specifications.

TRIATHLON
2011 medal target: None to one
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (none achieved)
2009: None to one (two)
2010: None to one (one)

BADMINTON
2011 medal target: None to one
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (none achieved)
2009: No medal target
2010: None to one (none)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "They've got a pairing ranked in the top 10 in the world and Nathan Robertson has medalled on numerous occasions at the highest level in the sport. So one medal is possible to do - it's a stretch target to win a medal but they have to believe they can do it. Despite the recent challenges and the building job they have to do for 2016 and beyond, they still have a small group capable of playing at that level."

CANOEING
2011 medal target: Two to four (includes sprint and slalom canoeing, slalom Worlds are in September)
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Two (three achieved)
2009: One (one)
2010: Two to three (five)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "Canoeing's target may seem low, but it is a classic example of a sport particularly focused on playing the four-year game. A year out they know they're in a strong place, but canoeing will want to experiment this year and think about what they can do - not just to target medals in London but ultimately go for gold, which means they're prepared to take more risks this year to get what they need."

ATHLETICS
2011 medal target: Five to eight
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Five (four achieved)
2009: Four to seven (six)
2010: 10 to 15 (19)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "If athletics comes within that target range, it's going to mean very significant progress. To be within that range is exciting. The depth and range of competition in track and field only ever increases with each Olympic cycle."

HOCKEY
2011 medal target: Two
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: No medal target
2009: One to two (two achieved)
2010: No medal target (one)

JUDO
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Two (none achieved)
2009: No medal target (one)
2010: No medal target (one)

ROWING
2011 medal target: Four to six
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Four (six achieved)
2009: Two to four (six)
2010: Three to five (nine)
Peter Keen, UK Sport director of performance: "Britain's rowers won nine medals last year but have an upper level of six this year - because they'll want to experiment with boats and will, quite rightly, say that last year was a unique world championships in terms of venue and timing [in New Zealand, three months later than normal]. They can't be confident that the rest of the world threw everything they'd got at it in 2010, knowing that event came mid-cycle and mid-phase in the build-up to 2012."

SHOOTING
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Two (none achieved)
2009: None to one (none)
2010: No medal target

David Florence

David Florence won Olympic slalom canoe silver in Beijing. Photo: Getty Images

September

It's the turn of the slalom canoeists when their World Championships begin in Slovakia. Since David Florence won silver in Beijing, the squad's progress has been solid if unspectacular - last year, Florence and team-mate Richard Hounslow came up with a world bronze but they probably wanted a little more. Florence remains the danger man but Campbell Walsh has had a good start to the season.

The World Boxing in mid-September is the pre-Olympic acid test for a strong-looking British squad. Women's boxing makes its Olympic debut in London but there are no women's Worlds this year, so the focus is on the men - and characters such as Bradley Saunders and Tom Stalker. James De Gale won Olympic gold for Britain at a successful 2008 Games in Beijing, providing a platform on which to build for 2012.

This is also the month in which the men's basketball team take to the EuroBasket court in their highest-profile event of the year. They have the potential to cause a surprise, especially on the back of the decision to allow them to compete at the Olympics, but there is no medal target attached to the tournament.

Equestrian sport relies on the European Championships for its medal targets this year, with no equivalent of last year's World Equestrian Games. This month, the showjumpers go for gold in Madrid. British showjumping has a point to prove and could be said to lag slightly behind its eventing and dressage compatriots - there were no world jumping medallists in Olympic disciplines from Britain last year, while eventing and dressage brought home a gold and four silvers. Laura Bechtolsheimer, star of British dressage, is the name to watch in equestrian sport.

BOXING
2011 medal target: Two to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Two (three)
2009: None to one (none)
2010: Two to three (six)

EQUESTRIAN
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Three (two)
2009: One to three (five)
2010: One to three (four)

October

The World Gymnastics, in Tokyo, are vital for Britain's gymnasts. It's their first chance to qualify full teams for the London Olympics and, to do so, they must finish in the top eight in the team events here.

Gymnastics in Britain is now operating at a higher level than ever before - certainly, the idea of full GB men's and women's teams at an Olympic Games is a new one. Beth Tweddle has led the way for years and this will surely be her last World Championships appearance, with her eventual retirement hoving into view after 2012. Louis Smith and Daniel Keatings are the current stars of the men's team - Smith won Britain's first Olympic gymnastics medal for 80 years in Beijing - but that could still change, since there's fierce competition for places.

GYMNASTICS
2011 medal target: One to three
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: One (one)
2009: One to two (two)
2010: One to two (three)

November

Sicily hosts the World Fencing this year, and Britain's fencers have the ambitious target of bringing back a medal for the first time in approaching half a century. Last year, in Paris, was a disappointment - illness, injury and poor performance all playing a part - but the European Championships in Sheffield this coming July offer invaluable experience for the team on home soil. Richard Kruse is the name to keep in mind, both in the individual men's foil event and leading the men's foil team (who are the likely lads to bring home that medal).

Zoe Smith has blazed a trail for the public profile of weightlifting, but the teenager is not considered a medal prospect for the sport's World Championships in Paris.

FENCING
2011 medal target: One to two
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: No medal target
2009: None to one (none)
2010: None to one (none)

December

Britain's sailors take to the waters in Perth throughout much of December, with some fascinating storylines emerging around who will represent Britain on the Olympic course in Weymouth the following year. For example, the battle between three-times Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie and rival Giles Scott to fill the Finn class Berth in Team GB is heating up.

Then there's Saskia Clark, who's fighting to make 2012 with new 470-class team-mate Hannah Mills after former partner Sarah Ayton announced her retirement, less than 18 months out from the Games. GB sailors have routinely exceeded their past targets of recent years, including their six-medal haul at Beijing.

Handball has had its men's World Championships, in January - the women's event is held in Brazil in December, but there is no GB representation.

SAILING
2011 medal target: Two to four
Historic targets
Beijing 2008: Four (six achieved)
2009: Two to four (five)
2010: Two to four (five)


Explaining UK Sport's targets

UK Sport is very clear that it does not "set targets" for sports. It works with sports, it says, to come up with a target largely suggested by that sport, which the sport feels is achievable. "We will challenge, question and look to verify what sports propose to us," says Peter Keen, "but telling an athlete to do something is not going to work. They've got to want to do it more than we want them to do it." In other words, the targets are not imposed on sports, they are agreed with them.

Not all the targets are for World Championships - some are for European Championships, Commonwealth Games, World Cups or other events. But they are almost always set with that year's highest-profile event in mind.

Missing a target, in UK Sport's words, means producing "a level of performance where sports acknowledge they have failed to deliver what they are capable of". So missing any of the targets above will suggest something has not gone to plan, very close to an Olympic Games. Worth keeping an eye out.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It appears some sports we are ahead of the game and others we are short on.

    I look at Track cycling, in 2007 before Beijing, we were winning medals left, right and centre. Mark my words at the World Championships at the end of the month, we will be quite a way behind Australia and France. I also think we're not doing as well in sailing as we were before the last Olympics.

    However Taekwondo has been a revelation over the last year and they must be doing something right!

    Just goes to show this predictions game is a difficult one!

 

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