U.S. sprinters are faster than Charles Barkley at dinnertime, but put them in the 4 x 100 relay and they stumble around like Cosmo Kramer. With a baton in their hands, America's Fab Four turns into the Flub Four. What Steven Seagal is to acting, Americans are to passing the baton.
All eyes will be on the Americans when they make their 2012 Olympic debut this week — the women on Thursday, the men on Friday. They'll compete in the finals a day later — or will they?
Look at the accompanying box (see page D5). Since 1988, Americans have been disqualified or failed to finish the 4 x 100-meter relay 14 times in the Olympics and World Championships, 10 of them in the heats or semifinals. This doesn't even consider the occasions when poor exchanges forced them to settle for silver or bronze or no medal at all.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both the men's and women's teams dropped the baton in the semifinals on the same day, on the same third exchange. The CEO of USA track and field, Doug Logan, immediately responded by writing in his blog, "Dropping a baton isn't bad luck, it's bad execution. Responsibility for the relay debacle lies with many people and many groups, from administration to coaches to athletes. That's why when these (Beijing) Games are completed, we will conduct a comprehensive review of all our programs."
Know what happened a year later at the World Championships? The men were disqualified in the semifinals for passing out of the zone, and the women dropped the baton in the semifinals.
More recriminations followed from USA Track and Field. This time it was Benita Mosley, chief of performance for USATF, who said, "We're going to bring together a meeting of the minds, the best and brightest sports scientists, coaches and athletes and administrators, to craft a high-performance plan to guide our path and our steps as we try to maximize our performance."
Know what happened at the next World Championships (in 2011)? The U.S. men claimed another DNF — the third runner, Darvis Patton, fell and dropped the baton. The women managed to string together three handoffs to win the gold.
That's pretty much the way it is for U.S. relay teams: Feast or famine, victory or calamity.
In the last eight World Championships (the Olympics are considered the World Championships in Olympic years), the U.S. men and women have both failed to get the baton around the track five times (including four of the last five for the men). The men have, in order, finished DQ, gold, silver, DNF, gold, DNF, DQ, DNF. The women have gone DQ, DQ, DQ, gold, gold, DNF, DNF, gold.
It's never been a question of speed. The U.S. has produced a long list of great sprinters — Carl Lewis, Tyson Gay, Bobby Morrow, Jim Hines, Maurice Green, Justin Gatlin, Bob Hayes, Eddie Tolan, Harrison Dilliard (shall we go on?). Americans are so deep in talent that they've had to leave home sprinters who would have medaled in the Olympics.
Americans used to win the 4 x 100 routinely. From 1920 to 1993, the men won 17 of 18 World Championships/Olympics, not counting the boycott of 1980 (the lone loss was a DQ in the 1960 Olympics for passing out of the exchange zone). From 1984 to 1997, the women won six World Championships/Olympics in a row.
Since then it's been a crapshoot. By now it's clear that America's problems with relay teams — a slump that has endured for years, with an ever-changing cast of athletes — is no aberration, but rather a systemic problem.
"There are no relay teams in the world that run the 4 x 100 better than the USA," says Craig Poole, director and head coach of USA Track & Field at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. "But those teams are generally from universities, colleges and high schools. Yet when it comes to the world scene, the USA struggles."
Poole believes the problem is obvious. "For relays to run well, it takes time and many repetitions," he says.
And American national teams have little of that. The U.S. system for choosing relay members for world championships and Olympics is based on individual placement in the 100-meter dash at the USA championships (or the Olympic Trials in Olympic years). The 4 x 100 isn't even contested in those meets. The relay is an all-star team that has never run together, and, as Poole notes, many of them have not run relays on a regular basis for years, as they would in a school system. Further complicating matters, many of them have run only the anchor position on a relay team, which means their hand-off skills are poor.
"Other teams run together all the time," says Poole.
Between the Olympic Trials and the Olympics, the teams practice together, but only as often as they can manage between individual races in Europe. They have few opportunities to pass the baton in actual competition, and it is impossible to simulate the adrenaline of competition in practice. If all that weren't problematic enough, the U.S. uses substitutes in the heats to rest their top sprinters for the open 100 or 200, which means another lost opportunity to practice exchanges. Few other teams do this.
The solution is simple, Poole says — "Have relay teams qualify as a team to represent the U.S. — don't use an all-star team. The top sprinters could create a relay team, but they would only qualify for the (world championships or Olympics) if their team won at the Olympic Trials."
U.S. officials will balk at any suggestion of breaking from tradition, but something needs to change.
The misadventures of the United States 4x100-meter relay teams.
1988 Olympics — DQ (heats)
1995 World Championships — DNF.(heats)
1997 World Championships — DNF (heats)
2001 World Championships — DQ (semifinals)Comment on this story
2005 World Championships — DNF (heats)
2008 Olympics – DNF (semifinals)
2009 World Championships — DQ (finals)
2011 World Championships — DNF (semifinals)
1991 World championships — DNF (semifinals)
2001 World Championships — DQ (finals)
2003 World Championships — DQ (finals)
2004 Olympics — DNF (finals)
2008 Olympics — DNF (semifinals)
2009 World Championships — DNF (heats)
DQ =3D Disqualified for passing the baton out of the exchange zone.
DNF =3D Did not finish race due to dropped baton or fall.