By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Bookmakers and economists are predicting Britain could end a gold medal stranglehold enjoyed by China, the United States and Russia this century by muscling into the top three finishing positions at the London Olympics.
Since 2000, China and the United States have held the first and second slots in the gold medal tally with Russia third.
At Beijing in 2008, China led the table for the first time with 51 golds among 100 medals, while the U.S. team won 36 golds and 110 medals. Russia took home 23 golds and 73 medals.
Britain came fourth, passing Germany and Australia, by winning 19 golds and a total of 47 medals.
This summer UK Sport, which funds elite British athletes, has set a 2012 target of 48 medals but bookmakers and economists say this is too modest as Team GB are the largest Olympic team with 542 athletes and have the advantage of home crowd support.
Britain has also spent 312 million pounds ($488 million) since 2008 to make sure Team GB are top of their game.
Airton Risk Management, part of betting company Paddy Power PLC, has used predictions of 110 sports traders to forecast British athletes will bag 22 golds and a total of 61 medals, rivaling Russia for third place.
"It won't surprise the public that Team GB are expected to deliver in cycling, sailing and boxing," said the head of Airton Risk Management, Rod O'Callaghan.
"However, there is a wealth of emerging and lower profile talent - such as Perri Shakes-Drayton (women's 400m hurdles) who could pick up an unexpected gold in front of her home crowd and Lawrence Okoye (men's discus)."
He added the United States were expected to perform well in track and field and in the pool with odds of 16-1 that Michael Phelps will win seven golds in London. He won eight in Beijing.
David Steven, spokesman for bookmaker Coral, agreed UK Sport's target was low and was running odds of 6-5 that Britain would win 25 or more gold medals.
He predicted 64 or 65 British medals which would be the greatest number for Britain since the London Games in 1908 when the nation won 56 golds and 146 medals -- and a turnaround from the team's worst Olympic performance in Atlanta in 1996 when they won just one gold and 15 medals to come 36th in the table.
Ladbrokes offer 3-1 that Britain would win 22-24 gold medals and odds of 5-6 of landing 62 or more medals.
"That sums up the sentiment in the camp at the moment .. us and the general public expect them to do very well indeed," said spokesman Alex Donohue.
Such a medal tally could put Britain ahead of Russia in the London medal table with Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko acknowledging Russia's 450 athletes may struggle to compete with Britain for third place - and some economists agree.
Goldman Sachs used economic modeling to predict the British team will come third with 30 golds and 65 medals while Russia wins 25 golds and 74 medals, arguing host nations can typically expect a 54 percent jump in gongs.
Economists at PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers), however, used a political and economic model to forecast Britain winning 54 medals but lagging Russia with 68 medals. They did not predict the gold medal tally.
Bookmakers Stan James, however, were not as upbeat and have lowered the chances of Britain winning more than 22 gold medals.
"There seems to be an air of pessimism concerning the Olympics with atrocious weather and concerns over infrastructure and security to the fore," said spokesman Rory Jiwani.
He said this mood was being reflected in the betting with punters backing Britons to win less gold medals than hoped.
"Initially we were 5-6 each for under and over 22.5 gold medals, but we've had to cut under 22.5 golds to 4-5 with over 22.5 golds now out to 10-11," said Jiwani.
The London Games, running from July 27 until Aug 12, were expected to see record Olympic bets but the total spend was still expected to fall far short of other major sporting events.
Bookmakers said the showpiece race, the men's 100 meters, was seeing plenty of interest with Jamaican Yohan Blake now seen as a serious contender to his fellow countryman Usain Bolt.
Steven from Coral said early estimates were of an industry wide turnover exceeding 50 million pounds compared to 10-15 million pounds bet on the Beijing Olympics.
"But to put that into context, upwards of 500 million pounds was wagered on Euro 2012," he said.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Justin Palmer)