LONDON — American sprinter Lauryn Williams spent all Thursday extending her left hand behind her back, reaching for an imaginary baton. She didn’t mind the strange looks from the athletes’ village. As anchor in the women’s 4 x 100 relay team, she wanted the movement to become instinctual. She knows all too well the agony of a dropped baton.
Williams was also the anchor for the 4 x 100 heats at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when a dropped baton on her exchange ended US medal hopes and meant the women would be absent from the final for the first time since 1948. So, it was with great relief that Williams exited the exchange zone with the baton solidly in her left hand Thursday night. Williams finished fast and the US easily won its heat in 41.64 seconds, just four-100ths off the Olympic record without its two fastest runners.
“I was like, ‘I got it. Don’t stop now,’ ” said Williams. “It was my chance at redemption. We practiced till we were blue in the face with all the different combinations and worst-case scenarios. So, we are ready. I could do it in my sleep.”
There was a time when the US didn’t worry about worst-case scenarios, dominating the Olympic relays and showcasing its sprint superiority in the team events. Between the 1920 Antwerp Games and the 2000 Sydney Games, the US participated in the men’s 4 x 100 relay on 18 occasions and won 15 times. Of the 15 gold-medal finishes, 10 were world records. The US women have not been as consistently far ahead of the field, though after the 1980 boycott they won the 4 x 100 relay in four straight Olympics. In more recent Games, both squads have missed medals because of poor exchanges and dropped batons.
The nadir in US relay history came at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when both the men and women dropped the baton in the exchange from the third leg to the anchor. The pained expressions of Darvis “Doc” Patton and Tyson Gay as the baton fell became symbolic of the team’s disappointing overall performance. Then USA Track and Field CEO Doug Logan said the dropped batons were “symptomatic of a larger” issue. Not including the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, it was the first time since the women’s 4 x 100 was introduced in 1928 that the US did not medal in either relay.
“In past years when we go out, you have a bunch of guys who all had the same goal,” said Wallace Spearmon, a member of the 2007 World Champion 4 x 100 team. “We want to win. We want to represent our country. Sometimes what you don’t see behind closed doors is a struggle for who gets to run. We practice almost every combination — this guy here, there. We pretty much know who can run what leg.
“By the time we’re there, honestly, we’ve had problems with outsiders coming in, trying to give their input. There is money in the relay. Agents and coaches, they also realize that if their guy runs, they get paid. So, they’re trying to have their guy put in front of some other guy who actually deserves to be there. In these last few years, I haven’t been around, but it seems to be a lot better. I train with Doc. He told me they have meetings now. Whatever you have to say, you just say it in front of the person’s face. And that keeps people from talking behind their backs. It looks like the team is on the up and up.”
An internal investigation followed the US track team’s disappointing performance in Beijing and found that a “lack of communication between coaches and athletes, poor management of the relay pools and questions over which coaches were responsible for the relays resulted in the 4 x 100 failures in Beijing” was evident. Like Spearmon, other athletes and coaches believe the dark days of Beijing are long gone. On Thursday night, the showing by the US women provided a positive start. The men take the track Friday night with Patton and Gay looking for redemption and gold.
“When you think about it, it’s one medal,” said Andrew Valmon, men’s US track and field team head coach. “We’ve taken the relay and put a strong emphasis on it, but the relay shouldn’t dictate everything. Taking the pressure off them is important. You do that with practice. You allow them to communicate and be together. Ultimately, these are all pretty talented athletes. The challenge is putting them together to equal one. If you have trust, you have success.”
With three blind baton passes during the race, it’s easy to understand the need for practice, communication, and trust. As incoming runners near the passing area, outgoing runners accelerate through a 10-meter fly zone. Then, the runners enter a 20-meter exchange zone. If passes take place outside the exchange zone, the team is disqualified.
Typically, the baton or “the stick,” as sprinters call it, starts in the right hand of the leadoff runner. On the exchange, the stick goes into the second runner’s left hand. It goes to the third runner’s right hand on the next pass, then to the anchor’s left hand on the final pass. A lot to review, especially for top US sprinters who devote most of their time and energy to individual events.
And that makes the US team’s greatest advantage also its greatest challenge. Many of the US sprinters spend the days before the relays advancing through the rounds of the 100 and 200. The first round of the women’s 4 x 100 came less than 24 hours after the women’s 200 final. So, Allyson Felix, gold medalist in the 200, and Carmelita Jeter, silver medalist in the 100 and bronze medalist in the 200, did not run. But they will be competing in the final.
Most other countries don’t deal with the same packed schedule and athlete substitutions the US does. Other countries also practice the relay more consistently, while the US relies largely on a pre-Olympics training camp and whatever they can arrange between and after individual events.
“The personalities have to come together for the greater good of the team,” said Felix. “Know that that’s what we’re all working for. For me, the biggest key is practice. I think that’s the thing that as the US, we miss out on. All these other countries are working together all the time.”
So far, the US women have done enough work together to reach the final as the favorites.
“Everyone knows what to do,” said Spearmon. “It’s just actually going out there and doing it. I know the last few years we’ve had unfortunate events, but this year I actually think we’re going to go out there and redeem ourselves. There’s no better place to do it than the Olympics.”