BEIJING Tyson Gay stuck his left hand behind him, waiting to feel the red baton's cool metal make contact.
Still waiting, Gay looked ahead and began to take off. Now accelerating, he glanced back at Darvis Patton, his U.S. teammate in a 400-meter relay preliminary heat. A moment later, Patton let go of the stick, and Gay squeezed his hand shut empty.
Gay never did feel that baton Thursday night, never did get to run his anchor leg, never did get to even compete in a final at the Beijing Olympics, much less win a medal, let alone gold. Instead, the stick slammed to the wet track, a not-so-subtle symbol of American favorites' foibles at the Bird's Nest.
"I feel like I let my teammates down," Gay said. "It's kind of the way it's been happening for me this Olympics."
You're hardly alone, Tyson.
Usain Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican team keeps running circles around everyone, adding yet another gold Thursday when Veronica Campbell-Brown won her second consecutive Olympic 200-meter title.
The United States, meanwhile, keeps falling short of expectations. For the first time in Summer Games history, the U.S. will leave an Olympics 0-for-6 in the sprint races: the men's and women's 100s, 200s and 400 relays.
"It doesn't seem like it's our meet," said Allyson Felix, runner-up to Campbell-Brown in 2004 and this time.
The sprint shutout was assured when, less than a half-hour after the Patton-to-Gay gaffe and at the same curve in the track U.S. women's relay anchor Lauryn Williams couldn't get her hand around the baton Torri Edwards was trying to pass along.
An all-around dismal display, prompting new USA Track & Field CEO Doug Logan to promise "a comprehensive review" of the way the federation does things including, he pointed out, "the way we select, train and coach our relays."
It didn't go unnoticed that Gay didn't participate in the team's pre-Olympics training camp in China. Gay said he and Patton practiced exchanges in Beijing and didn't miss a one.
Relay preliminaries are supposed to be perfunctory for the United States: gimmes, like the layup line before an NBA game, batting practice at a major league ballpark. Setting aside the boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics, you have to go back to 1948 for the last time the U.S. women failed to reach the 400 relay final; 1912 and 1988 were the only previous times it happened to the men.
"Heartbreaking," Edwards said.
And Jamaica? The Caribbean island of about 2.8 million people, roughly the population of Chicago, is the first country to sweep the four individual sprint gold medals at an Olympics since the United States did it in 1988.
"This Olympics is the Jamaican Olympics, no disrespect to the Americans," said Kerron Stewart, who earned a silver in the 100 Sunday, then a bronze in the 200. "Dominating like we are, it's no surprise. I know it's been crazy, because we've been on the podium a lot."
The only nation that has gone 6-for-6 in Olympic sprint races was the United States at the 1984 Los Angeles Games boycotted by the Soviet Union.
That sort of perfection appears to be a distinct possibility for the Jamaicans, led by Bolt who won the 100 and 200, both in world-record time and Asafa Powell in the men's relay, and the trio of 100 medalists plus Campbell-Brown in the women's.
"They brought their 'A' game. I don't know where we left ours. It's packed somewhere in my suitcase. I forgot to dig it out. We've got to go find it, though," said Williams, whose faulty exchange with Marion Jones cost the U.S. a relay medal at the 2004 Olympics. "This is not the Team USA we know. We're a much better team than this, flat out."
The United States finished Thursday with 20 medals, but only four gold trailing Jamaica and Russia in that column. The United States led the track and field gold count at each of the past six Summer Games.
Not all was lost on this night for the country that dominated last year's world championships, a showing that led U.S. head women's coach Jeanette Bolden to predict a couple of months ago this squad would go down as the strongest ever.
Can't be any stronger than sweeping an event's three medals, which is what the Stars and Stripes did in the men's 400 Thursday, something Felix termed "a bit uplifting after a pretty tough night."
But even when things go well here, they don't go according to plan.
It was LaShawn Merritt, not reigning Olympic and two-time world champion Jeremy Wariner, who got the 400 gold. Wariner struggled down the stretch, finishing nearly a full second behind Merritt and barely holding off David Neville, who dove across the finish line for the bronze.
"I didn't have anything left," Wariner said.
He's part of the long litany of 2007 world champions from the United States who did not follow up those performances with Olympic gold: Gay (100, 200), Felix (200), Bernard Lagat (1,500), Kerron Clement (400 hurdles), Brad Walker (pole vault), Reese Hoffa (shot put). Lolo Jones and Sanya Richards are among the other Americans who didn't grab gold they and others forecast.
There is a chance for more U.S. medals in the decathlon, which reached the halfway point Thursday with 2004 silver medalist Bryan Clay in first place and Trey Hardee in third. And the American haul Thursday did include David Payne's silver and David Oliver's bronze in the 110-meter hurdles, which world record-holder Dayron Robles of Cuba won comfortably.
In another of the many anticipated story lines that didn't follow the script, Robles never had to face Chinese megastar Liu Xiang, who pulled out of his opening heat Monday with a foot injury.
In Liu's absence, the locals have found a man to cheer for, loudly: Bolt. He got a night off from the relay but was back at the Bird's Nest for the medals ceremony in the 200 that was postponed from Wednesday because of protests that affected the silver and bronze medals.
Bolt stepped atop the podium, raised his arms, gave a thumb's up and smiled a wide smile, then mouthed the words as Jamaica's flag was raised and loudspeakers sent forth that lilting national anthem everyone has grown accustomed to hearing.
That was followed by a rendition of "Happy Birthday": The undisputed track king of these Olympics turned 22 Thursday. Bolt wagged his index fingers as though conducting an orchestra, then did his now-familiar pointing gesture pantomiming an archer drawing a bow except this time he had a bouquet of medalist's flowers in one hand and a gold medal dangling from a red ribbon around his neck.
About 10 minutes earlier, Campbell-Brown and Felix were racing in adjacent lanes, just like in 2004. And, also just like in 2004, Campbell-Brown accelerated in the curve and headed for the final straightaway with a lead she never allowed to diminish.
Campbell-Brown's eyes appeared shut as she scrunched up her face with exertion, and she finished in 21.74 seconds, the fastest 200 by a woman since Marion Jones ran 21.62 in September 1998.
"What can you say?" Felix said with a smile and a shrug. "A phenomenal time."
Not all that long ago, Felix figured to be one of the standouts of these Olympics, back when she was speaking boldly about chasing four medals, possibly even golds, in the 100, 200, 400 relay and 1,600 relay.
But she failed to make the U.S. team in the dash, the sprint relay is no longer in play, and now she once more has a silver in the 200.
"Deja vu," Felix said, "and not in a good way."
That would be an apt description of the two U.S. relay performances Thursday.
After her disconnect with Williams, Edwards screamed, then covered her face with both hands. All too aware of the way she walked across the finish line four years ago, Williams scrambled back on the rain-slicked track, picked up that darned baton and ran the rest of the way.
A "never give up" gesture if there ever was one, but the U.S. was disqualified.
The men didn't bother to finish their lap.
"If you're going to point the finger, just point them at me," U.S. men's coach Bubba Thornton said. "Not the guys. They don't deserve that."
After the baton dropped, Patton bent over and stared at it, hands on knees. He went over and picked up the stick, clutching it solidly in his right hand, while walking around the track, first for a chat with Gay, then with second-leg runner Travis Padgett.
Eventually, Patton made his way over to one of the officials wearing a sky-blue blazer and handed over the baton without a hitch.