In the second part of our 2016 year-end review series, statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best relay performances of the year.
It has been a long time since the United States has been able to challenge Jamaica for gold in the men’s 4x100m relay. The last time the USA finished on top was back at the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka when they won a close final 37.78 to 37.89. Jamaica has since struck gold at every edition of the IAAF World Championships (2009-2015) and Olympic Games (2008-2016).
What has changed in this event is the entry of two Asian countries into the race for the medals. China won the bronze in Beijing 2015 and this year, as the Rio Games approached, Japan was the team to watch. Jamaica was nowhere near their 36.84 world record from the 2012 London Games, but still comfortable winners in 37.27, anchored once again by Usain Bolt, who won his ninth Olympic title in the race.
The Japanese team impressed in Rio. A carefully orchestrated season, with a lot of team practice, paid off as Japan broke the Asian record in the heats clocking 37.68. In the final Asuka Cambridge brought the baton home even faster in 37.60, another area record and Olympic silver for the quartet. Canada set a national record of 37.64 when taking bronze, with anchor Andre De Grasse unable to overtake the Japanese.
China also continued its good progress, finishing fourth in 37.90 after breaking the national record with 37.82 in the heats. Great Britain was pushed to fifth despite a good 37.98 performance.
As Jamaica has ruled the 4x100m relay, the United States has dominated the 4x400m distance. Their reign hasn’t lasted as long, with the Bahamas notching an upset victory in London four years ago. In Rio the Bahamian quartet wasn’t as strong, but anchored by veteran Chris Brown, did manage to take bronze in 2:58.49.
The US was challenged by Jamaica in the Rio final, but ultimately the race wasn’t that close as Lashawn Merritt anchored the US squad to a 2:57.30 win. A very inexperienced Jamaican quartet finished second in 2:58.16. Each runner was competing in his first Olympic Games; only anchor Javon Francis reached the 400m semifinals in Rio.
There is a new country in the mix for the medals in this discipline too. Botswana looked to be in strong medal contention for the first three legs of the race, but Gaone Maotoanong was unable to maintain his position down the final straight, with the team finishing fifth in 2:59.06, a national record. Belgium’s anchor Kevin Borlée fought hard, but couldn’t pass Brown, forcing to settle for fourth in a 2:58.52 national record, a scant 0.03 seconds from the bronze.
Once more the focus fell on the ongoing rivalry between the USA and Jamaica. In the last four global championships there had been two gold and two silver each with the USA having the edge in 2011 and 2012 while it was Jamaica on top in 2013 and 2015.
With the USA encountering serious trouble in the second exchange in their heats it at first looked as if the Jamaican winning streak was already secured. However, it turned out that the second US runner had been somewhat infringed just before the exchange by a runner in the next lane. So the US team was granted a solo re-run with the chance to advance by time to the final.
It was an opportunity they didn’t waste, running 41.77, 0.02 faster than the Jamaicans’ performance in their heat. So everything was set for another exciting final with Jamaica, the favourite, drawn in lane 6 while the USA, as a time-qualifier, assigned lane 1.
However, that lane draw didn’t dampen the US squad’s spirits. A blistering opening leg by Tianna Bartoletta put them in the lead and with three smooth exchanges they never gave Jamaica the chance to challenge for the win. At the last handover Torie Bowie had a three-metre advantage over Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, one that didn’t shrink.
The winning time of 41.01 is second only to the 40.82 world record set at the London 2012 Games and considering the unfavourable lane, the Rio performance should probably be considered on par. Jamaica were clear runners-up in 41.36 with Great Britain third in 41.77, the fastest bronze-winning performance ever and a national record.
In the 12 global championships held between 2000 and 2015, just four nations – USA, Russia, Jamaica and Great Britain – have taken 35 out of 36 podium positions with the German silver in the 2001 World Championships being the only exception. As Russia did not compete in Rio it was up to the other three nations to keep the tradition alive. And they did.
Up front, USA and Jamaica quickly separated themselves from the field with the US quartet carrying their advantage through the first two legs. A strong third leg by Jamaica’s Shericka Willams sent Novlene Williams-Mills off on the final leg just a couple of metres behind Allyson Felix. In Beijing last year Williams-Mills ran down Francena McCorory for the gold but the Jamaican was not able to pull off the same trick on the experienced Felix who actually more than doubled the gap to win by 1.28 seconds in 3:19.06.
Well behind the first two was an intense battle, with the other six teams swapping positions continuously. In the end the British team – with veteran Christine Ohurougu on the anchor leg – prevailed to get the bronze in 3:25.88. Less than 1.6 seconds separated them from eighth placed Australia.
But that tight battle had already begun in the heats were all teams but the top two had to go all out just to advance. That took a toll: 12 teams ran sub-3:27 in the heats while only five of the eight finalists managed to do it again. The bronze medal-winning time was slower than what was necessary to advance to the final.
Mirko Jalava (men’s events) and A. Lennart Julin (women’s events) for the IAAF