Olympic Track and Field 2016: Complete Preview for Men's 4x100-Meter Relay
The argument that the 4x100-meter relay is the most riveting of all Olympic track and field events is not a hard one to make.
The all-out speed, national pride and ever-present danger of a mishap with that pesky baton make it a nail-biting 40 seconds to watch unfold. There is a dangerous field in the men's race at the Rio Olympics, and the rivalry between the world's two fastest foursomes—the United States and Jamaica—is complemented by a handful of countries eyeing an upset in an event that can knock out giants with one slip of the hand.
At the London Olympics, both Team USA and Jamaica bested the world record, with Jamaica winning gold in a in a blazing time of 36.84 seconds that has not been topped since. Jamaica has dominated the World Championships since but has proved beatable when the U.S. gets its act together (more on that later).
Here is what you need to know heading into Thursday's much-anticipated men's 4x100-meter relay...
Schedule, TV and Live Stream Info
Two preliminary heats of 8 teams will determine the participants in Friday's finals.
Thursday, August 18: Heat 1 (10:40 a.m. ET), Heat 2 (10:48 a.m. ET)
Friday, August 19: Finals (9:35 p.m. ET)
TV and Live Streaming
NBC will air Friday's final live as part of the evening's track and field coverage.
Live streaming for the heats is available on nbcolympics.com.
Team USA's Shakiness
The United States' silver-medal performance from London was annulled last year due to Tyson Gay's doping suspension. In the races that have counted, Team USA has a brutal record with the baton, completing less than half of its championship races in this event since 2000, according to the IAAF.
The handoff horror was on full display at last year's World Championships in Beijing, when the U.S. was disqualified for executing a handoff outside of the designated zone. On top of that, as USA Today's Chris Chase pointed out, none of the United States' passes were very good.
With so many hiccups in the recent past, it's going to be very hard not to panic or overthink the baton exchanges on the world's biggest stage.
If there truly is a rivalry between Jamaica and the United States, Jamaica owns it.
Usain Bolt is the two-time defending champions' anchor, and he has established that no one covers 100 meters faster than he does. That means the challengers will have to have a lead at the final handoff to have a shot at beating Jamaica, which has also won at the last three World Championships.
The United States did just that at the IAAF World Relays last year, building a lead of 0.48 seconds before handing off to anchor Ryan Bailey, who held off Bolt to secure a 0.3-second margin of victory. That was the first time Jamaica had been beaten in the championship race of a major world meet since 2007.
As NBC Sports' Nick Zaccardi pointed out, Bailey mocked Bolt's signature celebration after the victory, turning it into a throat-slashing gesture. This is after Bolt's classy 2012 gesture of pausing mid-interview to listen as the "Star-Spangled Banner" played in London.
If the Americans don't beat Jamaica in Rio, the "rivalry" may complete its transition into a one-sided affair in favor of the island nation.
Athletes to Watch
Usain Bolt, Jamaica
Still the planet's fastest man, Bolt has a chance to leave Rio with an otherworldly "triple-triple" over three Olympics, meaning he will have taken gold in the 100, 200, and 4x100 relay in Beijing, London and Rio. He is the overwhelming favorite in Thursday's 200-meter final, so should he cruise to victory as expected in that event, the 4x100 will be the clincher.
We are witnessing history, folks.
Justin Gatlin, USA
Although he has a 100-meter silver medal to bring back home from Brazil, Justin Gatlin has a demon to exorcise. That demon happens to be a 6-foot-5 Jamaican by the name of Bolt, who was supposed to face serious challenges from the 34-year-old Gatlin in both the 100 and 200. Gatlin lost to Bolt by just 0.08 seconds in the 100-meter final, but didn't even qualify for the final in Wednesday nights' 200-meter heats.
Bolt, who cruised through to the final with a smile on his face, said he wasn't surprised.
"It's just the fact you're getting old. To double at a championship where the young guys are stepping up is really hard," he said, according to the Daily Mail.
Gatlin has had an up-and-down career with a legacy that will include a four-year doping suspension lurking among his triumphs, which include a 100-meter gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Firing back at Bolt by running the fastest split in a U.S. victory in the 4x100-meter relay would go a long way in removing some tarnish off that legacy.
Who Are the Sleepers?
The Brits are having a fine season and actually have the world's best time heading into the Olympics. That time, 37.78 seconds, was clocked last month on their home turf at the IAAF Diamond League competition in London. That was a competition in which both Bolt and Team USA were absent, but a repeat of the time would mean at least a bronze medal.
The Chinese have never won an Olympic relay medal, but they took silver on their home turf at the 2015 World Championships with a time of 38.01 seconds. Their top time in 2016 is a solid 38.21 seconds, which could contend for a bronze.
Clocking a sub-38 of 37.88 seconds in the heats at last year's World Championships, the French have performed consistently since a bronze-medal finish at the last Olympics. The team's season-best marks have been 38.45 or below since 2010.
You just can't bet against a relay team that has a healthy Usain Bolt running an anchor leg.
Recalling Team USA's win at the World Relays in Nassau, perhaps Ryan Bailey should have held back considering Yohan Blake—Jamaica's second-best runner—was not even running. The Americans know it will take a major effort to build a lead big enough to account for Bolt, and simply passing the baton legally and effectively is going to take a lot of Team USA's focus. The thought of a dropped baton or botched handoff could be too big to overcome for this foursome.
With that said, Justin Gatlin should run an inspired leg for the U.S. in his last Olympics (he's 34), especially after falling to Bolt in the individual 100-meter race. The other challengers will all be waiting to pounce should Jamaica or the U.S. run subpar races.
Silver: Great Britain