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Trying to make sense of U.S. 4x100 relay team blunders

Ronnie Baker was the third leg in the U.S. men’s 4x100m relay team that failed to advance out of the heats at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ronnie Baker, centre, of the United States, runs in a semifinal of the men’s 100-meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo. Baker was the third leg in the U.S. men’s 4x100m relay team that failed to advance out of the heats at the Tokyo Olympics.
David J. Phillip, Associated Press

As the Olympics wind to a close, let’s take a moment to appreciate the mystifying, nonsensical, prolonged ineptitude of the U.S. 4x100 relay teams. It is truly a wonder.

How difficult can it be for four sprinters to transport a 1.8-ounce metal cylinder around a track? High school teams do it with little problem. College teams — no sweat. But in the hands of Team USA, it’s like trying to carry an egg on a spoon in a three-legged sack race.

We were reminded of this earlier this week when the men’s 4x100 relay botched a handoff, again. Yes, they aren’t able to practice together often, but neither are the other relay teams from other countries and they all seem to pull off this wondrous feat rather easily.

The thing is, if the U.S. team could simply pass the baton with even a little proficiency, they would win or at least medal. From 1920 to 1984 the U.S. won the 4x100 relay in 13 of 14 Olympic Games. It was after that that things started to fall apart. Since then, Americans have had a history of baffling ineptitude in the relay. From 1988 to 2015, they were either disqualified or did not finish the race (because of a dropped baton) or were eliminated because of a botched handoff in 7 of 11 world championships. Add to that their DQs and DNFs from the Olympics, and the body of their work is a marvel of errors. To wit:

— The 1988 Olympics, DQ, heats

— The 1995 world championships, DNF, heats

— The 1997 world championships, DNF, heats

— The 2001 world championships, DQ, semifinals

— The 2005 world championships, DNF, heats

— The 2008 Olympics, DNF, semifinals

— The 2009 world championships, DQ, finals

— The 2011 world championships, DNF, semifinals

— The 2015 world championships, DQ, finals

— The 2016 Olympics, DQ, finals

— The 2021 Olympics, botched handoff, heats

DQ = disqualified for passing the baton out of the exchange zone

DNF= did not finish because of a dropped baton or a fall

It should be noted that the U.S. was also disqualified in the 2012 Olympics. The team managed to get the baton around the track and finished second, but it was subsequently disqualified because of a doping violation by Tyson Gay.

The women’s team has performed better, but that isn’t saying much. They have had the same issues in the following competitions:

— The 1991 world championships, DNF, semifinals

— The 2001 world championships, DQ, finals

— The 2003 world championships, DQ, finals

— The 2004 Olympics, DNF, finals

— The 2008 Olympics, DNF, semifinals

— The 2009 world championships, DNF, heats

You could understand if this happened occasionally, but it happens more often than not.

The Americans had seemed to work out their problems more recently. They won the silver medal at the 2017 world championships and the gold medal at the 2019 world championships.

But then came Tokyo. On the second exchange in the first round of the 4x100, Fred Kerley tried to pass the baton to Ron Baker and whiffed. And whiffed again. They completed the pass on a third attempt but by then they were on top of one another, which means a big loss of time. They finished sixth in their heat and failed to advance.

“This was a football coach taking a team to the Super Bowl and losing 99-0 because they were completely ill-prepared,” Olympic legend Carl Lewis told USA Today. “It’s unacceptable. It’s so disheartening to see this because it’s people’s lives. We’re just playing games with people’s lives. That’s why I’m so upset. It’s totally avoidable. And America is sitting there rooting for the United States and then they have this clown show. I can’t take it anymore. It’s just unacceptable. It is not hard to do the relay.”

The U.S. regularly has two or three sprinters in the Olympic finals of the 100-meter dash, yet can’t put a team on the podium of the 4x100. Meanwhile, Japan and China, which have never produced a single medalist at 100 meters, regularly make the 4x100 final and Japan won the silver medal in the 2008 and 2016 Games as well as bronze medals at the 2017 and 2019 world championships.

Lewis, who anchored two gold medal-winning 4x100 relays, criticized technical aspects of the relay, specifically the decision to run Baker on the third leg, which requires him to run on the turn, from 200 meters to 300 meters.

“I’ve never seen Ronnie Baker run a turn in my life,” said Lewis per USA Today. “Go back and watch the third leg, look at him, he looks like he’s running on ice because he’s never run a turn. He doesn’t run the (individual) 200, so why is he running a turn when he never runs a turn?

“We’ve been talking about this forever. The relay program has been a disaster for years because there’s no leadership and no system. When I said everything is wrong, it is. If you break it down, people were on the wrong legs, obviously they were not taught how to pass the baton in those legs. Just simple things like that. I watched it. I’m not blaming the athletes so much. This was leadership.”