( AFP ) - The Olympics are still a year away but the United States and China are already exchanging verbal volleys over who will take top spot at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Keen to avoid the psychological pressure of going into the August 8-24 event as the favourites, the Chinese are busily playing down their chances.
"We are so far behind the United States it is a serious worry," Cui Dalin, deputy head of China's Olympic Committee, said last week at a press conference called specifically to draw attention to weaknesses in China's Olympic team.
The United States topped the gold medal table at the Athens Olympics in 2004 with 36. China was second with 32 and Russia came third with 27.
But in their push to overtake the United States, China has spent a king's ransom on team-building, including drafting in a raft of top foreign coaching talent, US officials say.
A Serb coaches the men's football team and a Swede the women's, while the synchronised swimming team is run by a Japanese coach who was branded a traitor at home when she came to China earlier this year.
South Koreans coach China's men's and women's hockey teams while the men's basketball team comes under a Lithuanian and an Australian runs the women's team.
"They will spend more money on the preparation of athletes and they clearly should be favored to win the most medals and the most gold medals," US Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth has said.
Steven Roush, the committee's chief of sports performance who was in China last week, said it was clear the Chinese were ahead.
In 2006, he said they won 43 gold medals to 36 for the United States and 35 for Russia in top-level international events. "We take that as a challenge."
So much so that China's emergence has forced the United States to respond with a critical re-examination of how it prepares its own athletes for the Olympics, he said.
"I think that is a critical aspect of being competitive and having competitors challenge you and forcing you to get better," he said.
US athletes are keen to show that they are up to the China challenge, said swimmer Michael Phelps, who set five world records and won seven titles at the world championships earlier this year.
"In the past we have always had the opportunity to be very dominant in sport," Phelps said during a recent visit to the Chinese capital
"It is our job to defend our title at the Olympics and we are all going to try as hard as we can, which is all you can ask for."
Host nations won the most medals at five of the first six Olympics before the US led the table four times in a row starting in 1920 at Antwerp
Germany took top spot with 89 to 56 for the US squad at Adolf Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
When the Olympics were revived after World War II, US athletes topped the medals at London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952, the first year competitors from the Soviet Union took part.
The Americans edged the Soviets 76- 71 in the 1952 medal count and out-golded them 40-22. But Soviet talent would win the most medals in eight of the next 10 Olympic Summer Games before the US team returned to power in 1996 at Atlanta.
A Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics caused them to miss China's Olympic debut. Two dozen years later, athletes from former Soviet republics could play a factor in deciding a US-China medal table matchup.
"It's not only about China," said US Olympic Committee chairman Jim Scherr earlier this year.
" Russia has done really well and other countries have improved their overall programs, Japan and Australia and several European countries."