While the US Women’s 4×100 meter skirted with disaster, and came out with a gold medal, the US Men’s 4×100 meter relay continued a disasterous process and management style that has given us six failures in the last seven World Championships and Olympics. David Hunter provides the facts and some suggestions. In a celebration of US successes, the men’s 4×100 meter relay continues to be a disaster.
The Games Of The XXXI Olympiad
The Mercurial 4x100m Relay
U.S Women Soar; U.S. Men Baffled Again
August 21st, 2016
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Everyone loves the 4×100 meter relay. Fans relish the spectacle, the electricity of this furious event which really is four mini-races all packaged in a 40 second presentation. With both the men’s and the women’s short relay finals being held Friday night, those who love track & field were prepared for a double dose of the event that requires both speed and execution. In the end, they got it all: the good, the bad and the ugly.
First up was the women’s 4×1 and the continuing melodrama with the American quartet. Thursday morning’s preliminary round featured the roller derby-like incident on the backstretch when the Yanks’ second pass from Allyson Felix to English Gardner was spoiled when the incoming Felix was knocked off stride by an adjacent, encroaching Brazilian sprinter. After a desperate baton toss, a hurried stick retrieval, a jogged last place finish, and a successful protest, Team USA was granted a most unusual re-run. After 8 hours to recompose themselves, the American women shined. In the 7:00 p.m. solo re-run, Team USA posted a 41.77 clocking – faster than all of the morning qualifiers – earning the USA a spot in the final and sending China to the sidelines. Ah, but taking China’s place meant taking their lane assignment as well – the dreaded Lane 1, complete with tighter turns and that always-pesky curb. Rejuvenated by the rare second chance, the U.S. women were unfazed when relegated to the least desirable lane. “It’s our new normal,” quipped leadoff runner Tianna Bartoletta.
After skirting elimination, the American women stepped back onto the track the following day for the 4×100 meter final to do battle with Jamaica and 6 other world-class teams. Experienced Bartoletta set the tone early, getting the out quickly and giving the American women the lead as she passed crisply to Felix. The lead for Team USA grew as Felix raced down the backstretch and handed off cleanly to English Gardner who roared around the curve. Even with a safe third exchange to Tori Bowie – stepping in to replace Morolake Akinosun who anchored in the preliminary round – the American women had a meaningful lead over Jamaica as the anchor runners took flight. They needed it. Shelley Anne Fraser-Pryce closed hard, but was held off by Bowie who crossed the line first in 41.01, followed by Jamaica [41.36] and Great Britain [41.77]. The victory was a glorious one for Team USA – their time representing the #2 all-time performance and setting a new Lane 1 world record. In the always-fickle 4×100 meter relay where all teams are flirting with disaster, the short relay is indeed a beautiful sight to behold when executed flawlessly. And the USA women did just that to grab the gold. Squad leader Allyson Felix best summarized the quartet’s emotional roller coaster ride to the gold medal: “I think yesterday proved that you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes adversity makes you stronger. We each have had a rocky road here, kind of a different journey, a unique experience. We just came together, just wanted to keep going.”
20 minutes later and energized by the glittering performance of the USA women’s relay team, the American fans in the Olympic Stadium were in a festive mood, eager to see what the men’s 4×100 relay team – which had posted the fastest time in the preliminary round – could do in its final. The exuberance of the USA faithful in the stands was short lived. Veteran leadoff man Mike Rodgers generated his usual quick start and executed what appeared to be an efficient pass to 100m silver medalist Justin Gatlin who powered down the backstretch. The exchange from Gatlin to Tyson Gay was balky, but at least the baton stayed off the track. As Gay motored around the curve, it was clear that Jamaica – in the outside lane next to the Americans – would be giving its anchorman Usain Bolt a lead. At the final pass, Bolt had a two step margin over U.S. anchor Trayvon Bromell. That’s all the world’s all-time greatest sprinter needed as he raced full bore all the way through the line, crossing in 37.27 for the win and the completion of the “Triple Triple” – the third consecutive Bolt Slam of Olympic victories in the 100m, the 200m, and the 4x100m relay. Meanwhile, Japan – overlooked by the track aficionados, yet riding superior stick exchanges into medal contention – found itself in 2nd at the final pass. Bromell – who grabbed the baton in 3rd – struggled down the homestretch, unable to catch Japan [37.60] as Bromell was .02 back at the line. Japan’s silver medal performance was affirmation that a slower foursome with exquisite passing technique can beat a faster quartet with substandard exchange zone execution. Remember: the ingredients for success are speed and execution.
While four flag-draped Americans danced around the track to celebrate what they believed was their bronze medal performance, Olympic track officials were studying the race recording. Here’s what they found: Team USA’s first exchange was in violation as Gatlin commenced his acceleration outside of the clearly-marked acceleration zone and the Rodgers-to-Gatlin pass was completed before the exchange zone. Oops.
But wait there’s more: Bromell also committed a lane violation. And here’s the worst aspect: It turns out Bromell ran the anchor leg with a severe ankle injury that was known by the USA coaching staff! Why in the world would the USA coaching staff ever allow an injured athlete already facing Achilles surgery to race when Marvin Bracy – the reigning world indoor 60m champion – is healthy and available? That thoughtless decision – which was neither in the best interests of Team USA or of Bromell, who could have faced further, more serious or permanent injury – should be subject to further investigation. With an array of violations from which to choose, the officials DQ’d the USA foursome. This disqualification of the USA men – the 6th such self-inflicted wound by the men’s 4×1 in the last 7 World Championships and Olympic Games – was learned by American track & field fans as they checked their apps while riding trains back to their hotels.
The remedy for this pathetic situation cannot be clearer: the United States cannot expect to win gold – or even capture a medal of any color – just by throwing together 4 admittedly-speedy athletes. Those athletes must also be committed to ego-free intensive training and practice under the watchful eye of an experienced coach with authority to assemble the best sprinter foursome that combines both speed and excellent exchange zone execution. Under any other approach, American athletes – and its track & field fans – are destined to endure a continued, unending string of disastrous relay team performances.