PARIS: The United States head into the World Athletics Championships seeking to better their total of 19 medals from 2001 and set themselves firmly on the road to Athens 2004.
Craig Masback, chief executive of USA Track and Field, confidently predicted after the national championships in June that America would improve on its total of nine gold, five silver and five bronze at the 2001 worlds in Edmonton.
The Americans will have to do it without superstar Marion Jones, the only double gold medallist in Edmonton, who gave birth to a son in June and won't return to world class competition until September.
The arrival of Tim junior hasn't improved the on-track fortunes of the other half of US track's first couple Jones' boyfriend Tim Montgomery.
He has struggled to find the form that saw him set the 100m world record of 9.78 seconds in Paris last September.
In June Masback noted that both Montgomery and three-time 100m world champion Maurice Greene had plenty of time to find their form before the championships, which start in Paris on Saturday.
But the ensuing weeks have offered little indication that either could be considered a clear 100m favourite.
Montgomery, silver medallist in Edmonton, has struggled in his European campaign, failing to come close to his world-record time.
Greene has posted a 9.94sec second-fastest in the world this year but that was in early June and since then a host of athletes have staked a claim to contender status.
As always, however, the United States have depth on their side.
It will again make them a force to be reckoned with in both the men's and women's relays, while in the 100m itself, Green's wild card gives the US four entrants himself, Montgomery, veteran Jon Drummond and reigning US champion and 2001 world bronze medallist Bernard Williams.
John Capel leads the US challenge in the men's 200m, where Greece's Kostantinos Kenteris is still expected to dominate.
But Tyree Washington, with a season-leading time of 44.33sec, has established himself as the favourite to put the 400m title back in US hands.
US men's head coach Bubba Thornton was reluctant to be drawn into specific predictions.
I think anything is possible, Thornton said. I'm not going to get into the possibility of 'We'll get this many or we won't get that many.'
I'm not going to talk about this person or that person. They've got enough pressure on them as it is.
Greene is just one of five Americans returning to defend their titles, another advantage in that it gives the United States a little extra representation in those events.
In women's events, Olympic and world champion and world record-holder Stacy Dragila will try to fend off the challenge of Russians Yelena Isinbayeva and Svetlana Feofanova in the pole vault, while defending 100m hurdles champ Anjanette Kirkland will have to contend not only with the likes of Jamaican Brigitte Foster but also with US veteran Gail Devers, relegated to second in 2001.
Long jumper Savante Stringfellow will also be trying to improve on a runner-up finish in Edmonton, and the US boasts another long jump medal contender in Dwight Phillips.
It's a 2001 bronze medallist, Kelli White, who will be aiming to fill the void left by Jones as she bids for a women's 100m and 200m double.
White won both events at the US championships, and is coming off a 100m victory over current world leader Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas in Berlin on Aug 10.
White bridles at the suggestion that Jones' absence makes the championships a lesser meet.
You cannot say that the world championships will not be a world championships just because Marion Jones is not there, she said in Berlin. A world title is a world title whoever is competing or not.
This year a world title may be even more a springboard to the 2004 Athens Olympics. AFP