By Patrick Johnston
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Sven Kramer leads the much-lauded Netherlands speedskating team into Olympic action on Saturday in the men's 5,000 meters with coach Gianni Romme so confident he believes he needs only an average performance to win gold.
Sky-high confidence is common to both the Dutch and Americans, the two most successful Olympic speedskating nations whose rivalry will be renewed in several of the 12 disciples being contested at the 8,000 seat Adler Arena in Sochi.
Kramer, a 13-times world single distance champion, is the overwhelming favorite to retain his 5,000m title and also right the wrongs of four years ago in the 10,000m, where he thought he had clinched a second gold only to be disqualified for wrongly changing lane on the advice of his coach.
Only a similar problem would deny him again in the 5,000m, an event that he is undefeated in this season, according to Romme, who did the long distance double at the 1998 Nagano Games.
"He does not have to do more than keep up his normal level. He is in shape, period. I don't have any doubts about that," Romme told reporters at the Adler Arena after training.
"And even if he is not feeling that great, he could still win. The ambition is great."
Kramer, 27, will also contest the team pursuit where the Dutch have disappointingly won only bronze in the last two Olympics, while Irene Wust is tipped to add to her two golds and the Dutch tally in the women's 1,500m and 3,000m events.
Wust said she was happy with the firmer ice but world records are likely to be limited with the state-of-the-art Adler Arena located at low altitude on the Black Sea coast.
Nonetheless, gold will be a big enough prize and two in Sochi would see the Dutch tie America's record of 29 Olympic speedskating wins.
The Americans, though, have plenty of opportunities to add to their own tally and, boosted by the latest high tech suits, have not ruled out the possibility of matching their tally of eight medals in the sport achieved at their home 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
"Oh, I definitely think that's realistic," said U.S. sprinter Heather Richardson, one of the favorites for the 1,000m.
Shani Davis is hoping to add to his legacy by becoming the first man to win the same disciple at three straight Games in the men's 1,000m.
He will also skate in the 1,500m and try to go one better than the two silvers he won in Turin and Vancouver, his bid boosted by a fast food treat.
"It's fun to eat there every once in a while," he told reporters when asked about a trip to McDonalds in the Olympic Village.
"I'll probably still go there when I'm an old man. I like McNuggets and fries. Hamburgers are for after," he joked.
China's medal hopes were hit by the late withdrawal of world sprint champion Yu Jing through injury but South Korean skaters Mo Tae-bum and Lee Sang-hwa are expected to retain their 500m titles from Vancouver.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)