The U.S. sprint-relay team is no stranger to failure. To preview Thursday morning’s 4x100-meter-relay opening-round heats, NBC had the comedian Kevin Hart perform a 90-second mocking rant on the team’s historic inability to get the baton around the track successfully. But the team still managed to surprise with its incompetence, finishing sixth and failing to even advance to the final.
A brief recounting of the American team’s baton-passing mishaps in recent years: At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a U.S. runner dropped the baton during an exchange. In the 2009 world championships, two runners exchanged the baton before the passing zone started, and the team was disqualified. In 2011, an American runner collided with a British runner in another lane and fell. In 2015, the U.S. team made the exchange after the passing zone and again was disqualified. If there’s a way to blow a baton exchange, the United States men’s 4x100-relay team has done it. Coming into Thursday morning, the team had messed up an exchange at seven of the past 11 Olympics and world-championship meets. Since 2005, the team had either not finished or been disqualified because of a baton-exchange failure six times. It was the worst rate of failure of any national team in the same time frame. And yet at each successive championship meet, if a runner named Usain Bolt isn’t entered in the competition, the United States will be the favorite to win the event. This year was no different.
Some trends are hard to change.
On the United States’ second baton exchange in Thursday’s race, 100-meter Olympic silver medalist Fred Kerley ran right up the back of his teammate Ronnie Baker, who finished fifth in the 100 meters. As the pair attempted to pass the baton, they looked more like Keystone Cops than two of the five fastest men in the world. By the time they did finally complete the exchange, Baker had lost most of his momentum. Still, when he reached anchor leg Cravon Gillespie, the U.S. was in third place, the final automatic qualifying spot for the final. But Gillespie, an alternate filling in for either Noah Lyles or Kenny Bednarek, one of whom would likely anchor the U.S. team in the final, was passed by three runners down the stretch. The U.S. relay team had failed again, eliciting shock and dismay from American track fans across the country — including sprinting legend Carl Lewis, who weighed in on Twitter.
“Just because you’re the favorite, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” Leroy Burrell, a former Olympic sprinter who was part of the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter-relay gold-medal-winning team in 1992, said prophetically in an interview a few hours before the race. “The margin for error is really, really slim.”
Getting the baton around the track at the speed at which Olympic sprinters run requires mastering a few basic elements. First, since the lane is just wide enough for two runners to stand side by side, the runner who receives the baton needs to be positioned on one side of the lane so that the baton exchange can be made while both the incoming and outgoing runners are moving at maximum velocity. At the same time, the runners must not impede their opponents in the surrounding lanes, and their opponents must not impede them.
Before the race begins, the runner receiving the baton will have placed a piece of tape on the track roughly 25 to 30 feet before his starting position. When the incoming runner hits that piece of tape, called a “go mark,” the outgoing runner starts sprinting. This sets up the proper timing for the exchange, which ideally occurs “anywhere between 25 and 28 meters” of the 30-meter passing zone, said Dennis Shaver, the coach of the LSU track team, which won the men’s 4x100 relay at this year’s NCAA championships.
Mastering the timing is easier said than done.
“At LSU, we have the same individuals working together for maybe ten weeks to determine the placement of the go mark,” Shaver said. Though the U.S. team typically arranges one relay camp in the weeks preceding the Olympics, it essentially tries to perfect this in a matter of days before the race. The results are self-evident.
After the outgoing runner has started his sprint, some teams use a cue word, such as stick, shouted by the incoming runner to notify the outgoing runner to put out his hand for the baton. Other teams might employ a silent pass, which relies on the outgoing runner putting out his hand after he has taken anywhere from six to 12 strides. In Thursday’s race, Baker began to extend his arm after six strides. By then, Kerley was already on top of him.
When the outgoing runner puts out his hand, he does so in a technically exact manner: thumb down, palm open and held up toward the face of the incoming runner, making as clear a target as possible. All of this happens while the runners are surrounded by their competitors doing the exact same thing in the lanes beside them. The event is also usually accompanied by tens of thousands of screaming fans. That wasn’t the case this year, of course. Yet the runners still had to block out a lot of moving parts and make a clean pass while running roughly 25 miles per hour.
“There isn’t a lot of time to think,” said Andrew Valmon, who coached the U.S. Olympic track team at the 2012 Olympics. “That’s why practices are vital.”
The relay, like so many events in track and field, is reliant on rhythm, in this case the ability to read and absorb the rhythm of one’s teammate and vice versa. The time to nail this down is during practice on the athletes’ noncompeting days. “During these practices is when you get a familiarity with the person outgoing and incoming, so you develop a cadence,” Valmon said.
Needless to say, mistakes still happen even after a rhythm has been established. One of the more common errors the U.S. athletes have made in the past, said Shaver, was to place their go marks too conservatively on the track, which could reduce the number of steps the outgoing runner would take before the incoming runner arrived — but could also result in the exchange happening before the runners entered the passing zone. Prior to a 2018 rule change, this infraction could result in disqualification. Now, the runners receiving the baton can start their takeoff from within the passing zone. But the U.S. still appeared too conservative in its approach on Thursday
There is no greater root cause of such blunders than pressure, what Burrell, the former Olympic relay gold medalist, called the “crucible” of the Olympics. “Those four guys and four women who we’re going to send out to represent us in Tokyo, that’s once every four years, and in some cases it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where you have to get it right,” he said yesterday. “And if you don’t, the images of you getting it wrong will be splashed across TV screens and on the front pages of papers around the world. That’s huge.”
If the Olympics demonstrate one thing, it’s that different people respond to pressure in different ways — even the same people respond to pressure differently at different times. In the relay, any unanticipated response can cause problems. Burrell noted that even if a runner performs better than he ever has before, that can lead to a miscalculation in the timing of the baton pass and could result in a failed exchange or a loss of time. Though of all the mistakes the U.S. relay team might have made on Thursday, this did not appear to be one of them.
“As a coach and as an athlete, you have to try to distill it down to its most fundamental form: what we have done in practice time and time again,” Burrell said. “Because as a [U.S.] sprinter, that usually is good enough. And you have teammates who if all four guys do the same thing, it usually leads to the outcome we’re looking for, which is winning the gold medal.”
He paused and added, “If you deviate from that, who the hell knows what’s going to happen?”