Track and Field: USA Relay Teams Seek Cure for the Dropsies

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2010

American relay teams have felt that sinking feeling too many times.
American relay teams have felt that sinking feeling too many times.

One of the most exciting events in any track meet is a sprint relay race.

It is one of the few opportunities to witness teamwork in a sport dominated by individual performance.

For decades, American track fans have been spoiled with multiple gold medal runs in the short relays (4x100m and 4x400m) on the world stage.

In recent years however, American relay teams have produced results which have been anything but exciting.

Many fans will remember the Olympic-sized failure of both the men and women's 4x100m relay teams to bring home a medal from Beijing, 2008—due to dropped batons.

And then, once again at Berlin's 2009 World Championships, astonishingly both teams were disqualified in the semifinals due to a dropped baton (women) and exchange zone violation (men).

On the world's biggest stages, the former kings and queens of speed have choked, while tiny Jamaica has been more than willing to step in and occupy that throne.

Bad baton exchanges have become a dilemma for American sprinters at the elite level. Perhaps as a carry-over from the days of dominance, a casual attitude toward the assembling of relay teams has resulted in poor chemistry and communication.

While raw speed is an important ingredient in any relay team, throwing the four fastest runners together does not necessarily make the best team. Some runners excel on the straight sections while others are more proficient on the turns. Some are good starters and others are better finishers.

The baton exchange itself is subject to various techniques and requires hours of practice.

The concept of a relay team composed of "specialists" is becoming more popular at the high levels of American track and field.

At this year's Penn Relays, two American men's teams actually got the baton around the track, albeit while finishing in the dust of the Jamaicans. Although the times were respectable, several of the exchanges were subpar.

This Thursday, at the Zurich Diamond League meet, the Americans get another shot at their Jamaican nemesis in a somewhat anti-climactic showdown. World/Olympic Champion and world record-holder Usain Bolt and former world record-holder Asafa Powell will not compete for Jamaica.

However, their stable of sprinters is very deep and talented. Mario Forsythe, Yohan Blake, Marvin Anderson, and possibly Nesta Carter will be available. As of this writing, USA will go with former World Champion and American record-holder Tyson Gay, Wallace Spearmon, Walter Dix, and Trell Kimmons.

Given recent history, regardless of order of finish, an effort by the Americans which results in the baton cleanly crossing the finish line will be viewed as a minor victory.

For sprint fans, two other USA vs. Jamaica matchups in Zurich will draw attention: In the women's 100-meters, two-time Olympic 200 meter champion Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica will face down the second-fastest woman in history, American Carmelita Jeter. The two are 1-1 this season.

Jeter's compatriot, Marshevet Myers, rebounding from injury, will also be a factor.

In the men's 200-meters, Jamaica's best-kept secret, Johan Blake squares off with the only man to beat Tyson Gay this year, American Walter Dix.

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photo: Chang W. Lee, NY Times