Passing a baton is hard and stressful. I’m not sure if any other event in the Olympics requires such make-or-break timing between two teammates, down to the millisecond. In the track relays, it’s easy for one little moment of miscommunication between runners to torpedo a whole country’s medal hopes, and that’s exactly what happened to the U.S. men in the 4×100 m relay on Thursday morning in Japan.
The U.S. men failed to even qualify for the final in this event, as they came in sixth place out of seven finishing teams in their heat in Tokyo. That placement makes it sound perhaps a little worse than it was, as the difference between the quartet of Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker, Cravon Gillespie and those that did qualify was imperceptible to the naked eye. The U.S. needed to be just 0.03 seconds faster to overtake Ghana, who did make it to the final, and if they had ran in the other heat, their time of 38.10 would have been good for third place and a continued Olympic presence.
But that can’t make up for the fact that the U.S. wasn’t fast enough, and wasn’t clean enough, to even meet the lowest of expectations in this event. It was his hand-off between the second and third runners that especially stood out as a glaring botch in the aftermath of their shortcoming.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before from the U.S. men’s relay team. In 2008, Tyson Gay and Darvis Patton fumbled the baton in their heat and did not finish. The team’s 2012 silver medal was erased because Gay later tested positive for a banned substance. In 2016, even though they crossed the finish line third, the U.S. men were disqualified for an early handoff between the first and second runners. And now, of course in 2020/2021, the relayers couldn’t even qualify for an opportunity to avenge any of those disappointments.
This was an inexperienced group that contained none of the four runners who took first place in the final at the 2019 World Championships—the loss of Christian Coleman in particular to missed (not failed) drug tests was keenly felt. That COVID-19 has restricted this team’s training time both in Tokyo and during the past year couldn’t have helped matters. But dumb mistakes and poor execution have dogged the U.S. men for years now, and what happened in Tokyo merely continues the dissolution of a men’s 4x100m dynasty that until this century was a perennial gold-medal favorite.
The U.S. women’s 4×100 team, on the other hand, are absolutely fine. After easily qualifying a couple of hours before the men’s heats, they’ll now go for their third straight gold medal at 6:50 am ET on Friday.