TORONTO (AP) — Alan Ashley isn’t paying attention to the medal table at the Pan Am Games, but the American will be riveted to it at next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ashley, the chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee, is working the Pan Am Games like a laboratory: trying out younger athletes, giving many their first taste of a large multi-sport event, and using the 41-nation championships to qualify some athletes for Rio.
“I feel an enormous amount of pressure to deliver for the athletes,” Ashley said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s their show, they’re the ones out there competing. But we’ve got to do everything within our power to make sure they have their very best day.”
The United States is expected to top the medal table when the Pan Am Games end Sunday, probably just ahead of host Canada. The Americans have won twice as many medals as anyone else in the 64-year history of the event, so the outcome was expected before the games opened in Canada’s largest city.
Now eyes turn to Brazil, and expectations soar.
It’s still early, so Ashley declined to make predictions. However, several widely circulated forecasts show the United States as a slight favorite to finish ahead of China with Russia in third.
Ashley said prospects for Rio will be clearer after the world swimming championships opening this week in Russia, and the track and field world championships in August in Beijing.
“After the world championships, everybody will have a better idea of how their countries are stacked up against each other,” Ashley said.
The United States won the most gold medals in London with 46, and also led the overall count. China had 38 gold and was second overall. Host nation Brazil won only 17 overall medals — only three gold — and is hoping to use the home-nation advantage and win about 30.
“I think China will be really solid, and I wouldn’t discount Russia,” Ashley said. “The best I can tell you is that it’s probably similar to London and the horse race that went on there.”
The United States needs to maintain its dominance in swimming and track and field, and improve in events like sailing and equestrian, which failed to produce medals in London.
The Americans will be strong in golf, which is returning to the Olympics since its last appearance in 1904 in St. Louis. The men’s field could include the likes of defending Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.
The Americans are also hopeful in rugby sevens, another new sport with a wide-open field for both men and women.
Ashley’s first summer Olympics in this position was London. He said being on the job during the entire four-year Olympic cycle has brought continuity.
“I feel a little bit different than I did in London only because I’ve tried to make sure we are working harder to support the athletes,” Ashley said. “I think our connection with many of the sports is a little higher than it was going into London. That’s a good thing from the standpoint of shaping up as one team when we hit ground in Rio.”
Ashley, who expects to have a team of about 570 in Rio, said he follows athletes’ numbers and listens to coaches as he weighs where to invest time and money.
“You can’t go with one or the other. The trends in the data don’t always tell you what’s going on,” he said. “But simply going by a coach’s intuition isn’t enough either.”
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