America'$ Relay$ Debacle


Wed Feb 11, 2009 By Joe Battaglia / Universal Sports

The performances by the U.S. men’s and women’s 4x100m relay teams were perhaps the greatest disappointment of the Beijing Olympics.

Apparently they were a bigger abomination than anyone thought.

A committee charged with recommending solutions to USA Track and Field’s problems offered a number of sharp criticisms. Among those in a 69-page report released Monday, the Project 30 Task Force strongly recommended the dissolution of the failed National Relay Program.

“The United States has made relay running a 400-meter enigma, wrapped in a conundrum and shrouded in mystery,” the report said. “The Task Force recommends that the existing Relay Program be terminated immediately.”

Following a series of initial meetings, the National Relay Program was launched in 2003 with the charge of streamlining methodologies for running relays in international team competitions such as the Olympics and World Championships.

It was a perfectly logical concept.

You’ve got athletes coming together with different backgrounds and training to run the relays, but you can’t have them doing it in different ways. It’s basic high school track and field. USATF said let’s establish one technique for executing handoffs and get it right.

But like so many things bogged down in bureaucracy, things went way wrong.

Under the leadership of program director Brooks Johnson and coach Orin Richburg, the program rarely attracted the elite runners who handle the batons during major international competitions unless it was required of them by their shoe sponsor, the report says. In 2008, 172 different men and women participated in the National Relay Program. :eek:The relay pool for the Olympic team consists of six runners in each race.:eek:

Task Force member Mel Rosen, head coach of the 1984 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Teams, said on a teleconference Monday that there was no reason why so many runners were involved.

“I watched the relay situation throughout the last four years and I always said I didn’t know what good it did having this little kid from Fresno running 10.7 on the relay when he has no chance of running in Beijing,” Rosen said. “Often, these relays were made up of a bunch of guys named Joe. I didn’t know who any of them were.”

To fill out the relay race cards at a number of meets across America such as the Drake Relays, Penn Relays and Modesto Relays, Rosen said USA Track and Field spent nearly $1 million transporting these athletes to meets under the premise of preparing them for international competition. :eek:

Since 2003, that investment has yielded 17 gold or silver medals at the World Championships, Olympic Games and World Cup and seven disqualifications (see chart below).

Year Money budgeted Money spent Men’s 4x100m Women’s 4x100m Men’s 4x400m Women’s 4x400m
2003 $95,000 $17,200 Gold Silver Gold Gold
2004 $20,000 + portion of $800,000 grant $250,500 Silver DQ Gold Gold
2005 $194,000 $212,000 DQ Gold Gold DQ
2006 $152,000 $224,000 Gold DQ Gold Silver
2007 $145,000 $174,000 Gold Gold Gold Gold
2008 n/a n/a DQ DQ Gold Gold

The Task Force deemed a million bucks spent for a 71 percent success rate to be too much for a C grade.

“The concept of the National Relay Program is sound, but the nearly universal opinion is that it has been a waste of money and a failure as it relates to its expressed goals,” the report stated. “Relay team performances in major international competitions have not justified the expenditures over the last five years.”

[b]Another bone of contention with the Task Force was the practice of not selecting the order of the relay until 48 hours before the race. Common sense should tell anyone that more than two days of practice may be helpful.

Rosen said he could have picked the relay orders in 48 seconds.

“I could set the relay orders as soon as the runners hit the tape at the Trials,” he said. “The first three that cross, your winner can run anchor if he’s a good anchor, and the one with the best start runs leadoff. That’s what we did in Los Angeles (Olympics) in 1984, and we did the same thing in Barcelona (Olympics in 1992).”[/b]

The Task Force also specifically addressed the U.S. performance in Beijing and uncovered a number of alarming shortcomings in leadership that undoubtedly contributed to the dismal 4x100m performances.

In the lead-up to Beijing, it was anyone’s guess as to who was making the relay decisions. Rosen said that he heard of “10 or 12 different coaches attending relay practice in Beijing.” With no clear lines drawn, nobody seemed to know who was making decisions and why. An Olympic Team staff coach was quoted in the report as saying, “the kids don’t know what’s going on. There are no guarantees of who is on the relay and that becomes a problem. You never build that camaraderie. That is the initial problem.”

[b]Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, a member of the Task Force, said that coaching transparency was a key to his two Olympic relay victories.

“There was transparency both times when Coach Rosen was my coach,” Lewis said. “We won gold in 1984. In 1992, I wasn’t going to run and coach invited me to relay camp and he kept his word. The other two times were different. In 1988, we had a coach using athletes who were looking to get money and we ran out of the zone. In 1996, we got Leroy Burrell injured and lost.”[/b]

Lewis said that there was a greater sense of responsibility taken by both the coaching staff and athletes when he competed.

[b]Accountability was nowhere to be found with the relay teams in Beijing.

You didn’t need to be a Hall of Fame sprinter such as Lewis to see that the dropped baton exchange in the women’s 4x100m in Beijing was the result of poor mechanics. Lauryn Williams dropped the hand she was receiving the baton with, something she has been drilled not to do for her entire life as an experienced relay runner. Torri Edwards let go of the baton before it was pulled from her hand by Williams, something she too should have been well versed in.[/b]

According to the report, “The Task Force was troubled by the fact that the athletes themselves seemed to have no idea why the stick dropped, beyond saying it was ‘one of those things’ and the stick had a mind of its own.”:rolleyes:

[b]Equally disturbing as the women’s failure was the handling of Tyson Gay on the men’s 4x100m. Gay, who injured a hamstring during the Olympic Trials in July, and was clearly not 100 percent physically during the running of the 100m in the days before the relay. With six runners in the relay pool, you don’t need to run an injured athlete.

Again, that’s just common sense.

But whoever was in charge – remember there is some ambiguity about that – decided not only to run Gay, but placed him on the anchor, a leg he never ran at the University of Arkansas and rarely in his life.[/b]

That left the Task Force scratching its collective head, too.

It deemed the decision to run Gay “poor,” and said placing him on the anchor, “required Gay to accept the baton in his left hand, which he was unaccustomed to doing.”


Other indictments unearthed by the Task Force included “drama” on the women’s team. The report cited an instance where an athlete disgruntled by her non-selection for the relay pool called the group together to voice her grievance.

I’m sure USATF had a committee for that in its bloated pre-Beijing existence.

[b]It should have also had someone on the staff capable of making it to the call room before the race to pick up bib numbers for the athletes. You may have noticed that U.S. women had their names scrawled on their bibs with a blue magic marker.

But again, no one stepped up and took accountability. [/b]

That’s because in a sport where shoe companies call the shots and everyone is in it for themselves, in a group where the coaching and management resembled the Keystone Cops, the U.S. failed to field a team.

“In 1984, I ran all three rounds of the relay because I didn’t want anyone dropping the baton,” Lewis recalled. “I wasn’t thinking about us winning six medals. I approached it like we were out to win one gold medal for the United States.”

Here’s hoping USA Track and Field can recapture some of that old glory.

WOW! That is embarassing.

Lewis’ last point is important! You need to be in the final and the least disruptive way is with the fewest personnnel and order changes possible. Remember, he had to run 11 times plus his jumps. If he can do it, and others before him. you wonder if many of the order changes recently ARE just about 6 people sharing in a medal (rule change to include heat runners from 84 on) instead of winning the gold.
Who pushed for Tyson to be anchor?
And WTF is the idea of any non-relay athlete calling a meeting of relay personnel, disrupting the team to bitch about not being included! Are you kidding me?? Why would the other girls go? Why didn’t the coaches know about this and kick her ass to the curb!

sounds like a great idea going down the drain because of beaucracy and self serving people.

I just answered my own question about the women’s relay. If the coach can’t collect the bib numbers, it’s unlikely that person will be on top of anything else.

They should not have completely canned the program though. Why not reduce that funding amount?

How does reducing the funding for an unsuccessful program help? While it reduces losses, it won’t change the outcome unless there is a fundamental shift.
What would you like the see the program consist of and who should the coaches be?

I can’t say for certain what they have been doing because I am on the outside looking in but it reduces outside interest in the sport. If I was a guy who became interested in the sport because I watched the Olympics and I went to a relay meet and saw none of my favorites I would be disappointed and will not attend another meet. Take Texas Relays as an example, the professional relay sections had 2 teams. I think they should hire a relay director that knows how to combat egos and they should host an effective relay camp before major competitions.

An effective relay camp before competitions is a HUGE problem, because, as you probably know, the period before a major comp is the time to lower training intensity and especially to individualize the pre-comp period.
Relay practices are usually fast affairs, once you get past fundamemtal stick passing drills which the vast majority of US athletes have mastered in college long before.
The Texas Relays are held very early in the training schedule of Professional athletes vs College athletes so readiness is a big issue.
Hosting/supporting relay comps in big meets after the sprint events is the way to go here. This requires some negotiations with meet directors. If the federation pays to bring in the athletes, the meet must reciprocate by eliminating heats in the 100, instead going straight to A and B finals to allow the athletes to be fresh enough to perform. Enough comps in major meets when the athletes are as ready as they can be will work well.

I have a question. Say you have a very, very good runner who is not the best in the country. He will be on the Olympic/Worlds relay team, but will not run anchor. Is he going to end up running anchor on most of the relays he runs prior to the Olympics/Worlds? If so, he may never hand off in competition until the Olympics/Worlds. Does this happen? And if so, does it matter?

It can happen and it does matter. usually though, colleges do shift athletes around in training but at some point, the ability to pass in all positions with either hand becomes important.

I can dig it. Sounds like a great idea there are plenty of countries that are looking for a sanctioned relay meet to compete and this would solve that problem also.

I said an effective camp in my previous post because obviously personal practices will have to be coordinated with the relay practices some way or the other. Sacrifice.

This is definitely not my department, but if athletes are worried about having too many races and such at meets, would 4x50 instead of 4x100 work for relays at meets, in order to get practice for eventual 4x100 relays?

It seems to me that the big relay problem is not running-related, it’s baton-related. This would give everyone the same hand-off practice, but with less running volume.

I realize the hand-off points would be different and the curves would play out differently and that sort of thing, but it would still be a relay race. It would be sort of like 7 on 7 competitions in football. It’s not the same as the full event, but an important part of the sport gets practiced in conditions that are somewhat similar to the full event.

I know I’d watch.

I’d watch only cause it’d be a train-wreck.
The second exchange requires the full distance to generate the demands of the exchange. The incoming runner must enter the curve on the outside of the outgoing runner, and this disadvantage makes fatigue a huge issue if the pass isn’t made cleanly at the first opportunity. The incoming runners at the first and third exchange can take advantage of their inner lane position to cut the distance to their teammate if they need a second chance.
Bottom line: All exchanges require curve work at the appropriate spot.

Got it.