17 SEP 2006 General News Athens, Greece

Making the exchange for a change – IAAF World Cup in Athletics

USA's Gay hands over to Smoots in Athens (AFP / Getty Images)USA's Gay hands over to Smoots in Athens (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

The United States’ men’s 4x100m relay at the 10th IAAF World Cup in Athletics set a meeting record winning their race on Saturday (16). Their team of Kaaron Conwright, Wallace Spearmon, Tyson Gay and Jason Smoots won by eight metres in 37.59 seconds, equal fifth fastest time ever run.

But it was as least as big news that the U.S. team actually managed to get around the track without (1) dropping the baton, (2) passing the baton outside the exchange zone, or (3) running out of its assigned lane.

Messing up the men’s 4x100 has been a tradition for the U.S. since the very first time the 4x100 was introduced in major international competition at the Stockholm Olympic Games of 1912. Uncle Sam’s dashmen, despite having finished 1-2-3 in the individual 100 metres and 1-2 in the individual 200, couldn’t find the handle on the baton and failed to qualify for the final.

Since then, faulty exchanges have caused “did not finish” results for the Americans in the Olympic Games of 1960 and 1988 and World Championships in 1995, 1997 and 2005, and certainly have contributed to second- and third-place finishes in several others.

That’s why American coaches and fans hold their breaths when the gun goes off in the “four by one” at the Olympics, World Championships or World Cup.

There is an irony lurking here. Many young Americans start running sprint relays for their school teams before they are 10 years old, and by the time they have finished high school at age 18 the good ones have run dozens of 4x100 relays under all kinds of conditions and before crowds numbering as large as 50,000.

Their high school and university coaches are knowledgeable and hard-working, and university-level teams often turn in sub-39-second performances – and even the American high school record is 39.76, faster than the national records of 141 IAAF Member Federations.

So why, with so much talent and so much experience, do American sprint relay teams have so much trouble with the big international meetings?

I think there are three reasons: first, the Americans choose the members of their relay teams until the qualifying meets, only a month or two before they face the world. This is in contrast to the many national teams – the French, Italians, Russians and Canadians come to mind – who maintain relay squads on a year-round, year-to-year basis that provides plenty of chances for practice and competition with different running orders. In effect, the runners become sort of  ‘interchangeable parts,’ whereas one sometimes gets the impression that an American team’s members are introduced to each other a few minutes before they take the track for the first round of the Olympics or the Worlds.

The second reason is that – sprinters being sprinters – it’s hard to get the top U.S. sprinters, who are also entered in the individual 100- and 200- metres races, don’t really turn their attention to the relay until these individual races are concluded.

And at that point, the relay is only a day or two away – hardly time to work out slick baton-passing routines.

A third, and darker reason, is that coaches and agents of individual sprinters sometimes do a lot of politicking to get their own athletes selected to actually run on the American team – so that on occasion the coach who’s actually doing the coaching doesn’t have the final say on which athletes are actually doing the running.

All this has been going on for nearly a hundreds years, so I guess all one can say by way of explanation is, ”That’s the Americans for you...”

James Dunaway for the IAAF

Click here to read Reports of ALL (20) Events contested today in Athens at the 10th IAAF World Cup in Athletics