The U.S. 4x100 M Relay Debacle and It's History: Part I

Nicholas MinvielleContributor IJanuary 17, 2009

In the midst of the unforgettable performance by Michael Phelps in the Olympics and the ever-entertaining Usain Bolt, we conveniently forget about the poor excuse for a 4X100M relay team.

This low point in the Olympics for the United States is beyond a disappointment. It is an embarrassment, both the men and women relay teams. What is the problem with our relay teams? Is there a way to correct the problem?

To understand the momentous let down this was to the track and field community in the U.S. we must consider a bit of our history in this event.

First, we have set the world record in the 4X100m seventeen times. Second, since1920 we have won gold in the 4X100 meters fifteen times. America has also won a gold medal in the 100 Meter sprint sixteen times since 1896 in the Olympic games that is out of a total of twenty-six Olympic games.

Some of the athletes who have contributed to this dominant tradition of winning medals in the sprint events are some of the greatest the world have ever seen. Men, such as the infamous Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, and Maurice Greene just to name a few.

The question is what happened on the 2008, 4X100 relay team? Is it a new problem arising or one that has existed for years and now just becoming apparent?

To answer the first question (which is brief), our guys simply dropped the baton. This was the first time since 1988 that the U.S. did not make the finals and the second time since 1912.Now, ask any respectable track coach and each one will tell you that the 4X100 is a risky event. Play it safe, to complete baton exchanges and more times than not your team will run a mediocre time. However, if you want a fast time, you have to take a risk on the exchanges. Risk equals fast times, sort of a “catch-22”.

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The answer to the second question, well we can only speculate. How are the inner workings of a relay team conducted on an elite level? One would typically think that the fastest four sprinters that the United States has, considering all are healthy, would run the 4X100 relay. Makes sense right?

To further investigate some of the seemingly senseless decisions by coaches and athletes alike that have contributed to past losses and disqualifications in the 4X100 m relay, we must consider past relay races.     

Consider the 1988 Olympics. Carl Lewis and Calvin Smith went one and three in the 100m respectively. However, the U.S. did not win gold in the relay. In fact they did not medal. The Soviet Union, Great Britain and France went one, two and three respectively.           

A brief history of the Soviet resume for the 4X100m (believe me its not impressive). The team consisted of Viktor Bryzgin, Vladamir Krylov, Vladimir Marovyov and Vitaly Savin. We could safely say these guys did not necessarily raise any eyebrows on the world circuit. Viktor Bryzgin’s most notable achievement was a recent fifth place finish the in the ’87 World Championships.

Vladimir Krylov actually won the 200m in the European Championships in ’87. Vladimir Marovyov did not make it past the quarterfinals in the European Championships in ’87 in the 100m. Vitaly Savin only made it to the quarterfinals of the ’88 Games in the 100m.

His fastest 100m time was 10.08 seconds that was average for American elite standards. What each one of these Soviets had in common was they were all relatively successful in several different 4X100 relay teams.

The Brit’s background is a bit more prestigious due to the success of their anchor leg Linford Christie. His most notable achievement came in ’92 at the Barcelona Games.

Christie won gold in the 100m with a time of 9.96 seconds. He also won silver at the ’88 Games with a time of 9.97 seconds. Overall he has the most impressive resume of his relay team.

John Regis was more of a 200m runner; he was the first Briton to run under 20 seconds in this event. His best 100m was 10.15. Michael McFarlane made it to the ’84 Games in L.A. where he placed fifth in the 100m final. The rest of his resume consists of a lot of success on minor European circuits. His best time in the 100m was 10.22 seconds.

Elliot Bunney had about as much success as Michael McFarlane, he won a few Junior Championships in the 60m. His best 100m was at an average 10.20 seconds.

The French team that won the bronze medal fell somewhere in between the Soviets and the British in terms on individual success. Bruno-Marie Rose had some notable achievements in the relays, of course in the ’88 Olympics but he was also a member of a world record setting French 4X100m relay that “lowered” the bar to 37.79 seconds.

Although, the U.S. did break this record a short time later with a time of 37.67. Rose did set an Indoor world record in the 200m. Daniel Sangouma had pretty good success on the European circuit and was also a member of the French 4X100m relay world record-breaking team with Rose.

Gilles Queneherve won silver in the ’87 World Championships in the 200m. In the ’88 Olympics he ran the open 200m and placed sixth.

The individual resumes of all the members of these 4X100m teams are not wildly impressive. By no means am I undermining the success of these fine athletes. However, it is not what we would typically expect from three separate successful Olympic relay teams. Now lets investigate the data of the Americans and their individual achievements.

Carl Lewis, need I say more. Arguably the greatest track athlete of all time. Such an impressive background exists for Lewis in track and field that I will not even attempt to elaborate on his numerous achievements.

Calvin Smith was world record holder in the 100m with an impressive time of 9.93 seconds. He was on not just one, but two world record setting 4X100m relay teams. He was obviously experienced in the relays.

Dennis Mitchell ran a fourth place finish at the ’88 Olympic games in the 100 m. He also won gold at the ’94 Goodwill Games.

What is one of the more impressive achievements by Mitchell was his 100 m run at the age of thirty-five, he ran a fast 10.11 seconds. Lee McNeill who had the least impressive resume of the four runners ran his fastest time that year in the 100 m in 10.09 seconds.

What is interesting about McNeill compared to the other runners was that leading up to the ’88 trials he was ranked ninth in the world in the 100 m. He ran on three relay teams the previous summer and each one of those relay teams placed first.

Some considered him to be one of the best relay men in the world. What’s more is that at the Pan American Games he was an alternate on the U.S. team. One member of the team injured his hamstring while the other decided to remain in Europe instead of competing in that race. The absent teammate was non-other than the Olympic bronze medalist Calvin Smith.

Now you are probably wondering what is the point of all this information. Well, let me lay it out for you. At the ’88 Olympics the U.S. 4X100 m relay team was disqualified because one of our exchanges was out of the exchange zone. The interesting point here is that the exchange was between Smith and McNeill.

According to Track & Field News, writer Walter Murphy said: “The Americans were comfortably in the lead as Smith approached McNeil for the final handoff…Smith hit McNeill’s outstretched palm with the baton, but the pass was not completed…and Smith didn’t get the baton to him until they were well out of the exchange zone.”

I believe we can reason that it sounds as though McNeill is not at fault. Smith appears to be the culprit. Let the speculation and controversy begin. One could say, if Smith had not been in Europe making several thousand per race and instead practicing with his relay team maybe history would have been different. The dominating tradition may have continued.

Was McNeill guilty of leaving his team to run races for money? Not exactly, McNeill ran a world championship race before the trials and played a major part in winning first for the U.S. team. For the gold medal finish, each member was offered $28,000 for his participation.

McNeill refused the lucrative check due to NCAA regulations not allowing their athletes to accept money. McNeill also beat Carl Lewis in the U.S.A. outdoor championships in ’85 in the 100 m. In the finals (yes the finals) he placed second and beat the world record holder as well as the previous years NCAA champ.

Clearly the U.S. was a better relay team on paper and in previous individual races. The three teams that medaled did not completely consist of dominant World Class sprinters. They simply had reasonably clean and efficient exchanges and worked as a team.

A relay team such as the Soviets more than likely practiced exchanges on a regular basis as well as the British and French. Each coach of these teams I am sure had their runners work exchanges together weeks if not months before the race.

In Part II of this article I will discuss more recent tragedies regarding the U.S. 4X100m relay teams and compare the athletes with the other competitors.

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