What Really Happened with the US Men’s 4×100 Team in Tokyo? And What Can Be Done to Fix it?
By Jonathan Gault
October 5, 2021
The United States men’s 4×100-meter relay had crashed out of a global championship in the heats, again. And again, the members of that team were forced to search for answers.
“It was just a matter of miscommunication about when to pass the stick,” the leadoff leg, who had been thrust into that role just 90 minutes before the race, told Track & Field News.
The man running third had his own ideas on how to fix things.
“Practice isn’t the problem we have; it’s just that we need a more consistent system,” he told TFN. “…There are a lot of aspects to passing the baton, and if one of those aspects goes wrong, then you get messed up. That’s something we’ve been doing over the last few years. We’ve just got to fix it.”
That story ran 24 years ago, after the US men failed to advance from their preliminary heat at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, and it seems almost quaint now. The US had been eliminated in the heats in both the ’95 and ’97 Worlds, which at the time counted as a crisis.
In comparison to what has unfolded over the past two decades, however, the 1990s qualifies as a golden era. The US men had been victorious in the 4×100 at the World Championships in ’91 and ’93 and the Olympics in ’92. They earned the silver at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, beaten by a strong Canadian team. The US would go on to claim gold at the ’99 Worlds and ’00 Olympics. Brian Lewis, the man responsible for the opening quote in this story, who could not complete the opening handoff with Tim Montgomery in Athens, earned redemption — and two gold medals — as a member of both of those teams.
But the success would not last. Following that Olympic gold at Sydney 2000, the US has entered a men’s 4×100-meter relay squad at 15 global championships. The results: two golds, three silvers, and 10 times where the US was disqualified, failed to finish, or failed to advance to the final. That is a 66.7% failure rate, an embarrassment for a country that, in terms of pure sprinting talent, has never ranked outside the world’s top two during that span.
The reasons for those failures have run the gamut, from retroactive doping DQ’s to dropped batons, shoddy handoffs to plain bad luck. And just when the US men’s 4×100 squad seemed as if it had run out of ways to fail, it discovered a new one on August 5 in Tokyo: for the first time in Olympic history, the US failed to qualify for a final not because of a dropped baton or a disqualification, but because the team of Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker, and Cravon Gillespie failed to run fast enough.
Many have tried to fix the US’s relay woes. That third leg from Athens, the one who spoke of developing a more consistent system? That was Dennis Mitchell, who was eventually appointed USATF relay coach ahead of the 2014 World Relays, in which the men’s 4×100 and 4×200 squads were promptly disqualified. Mitchell oversaw two global championships as US relay coach, the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics; the men’s 4×100 squad was DQ’d in both (though the women won gold in 2016).
From 1920 to 1984, there were fewer safer bets at the Olympics than the US winning the men’s 4×100 relay. During that period, the US won 13 of 14 gold medals on offer, the only blemish a DQ in the 1960 final in Rome (the Soviet Union won in 1980, a Games in which the US did not compete). Yet over the past five Olympics, the US men’s medal haul comprises a solitary silver medal. What is going on here? And how can it be fixed?
The 2021 Debacle
The problems in 2021 began well before Team USA landed in Tokyo. Orin Richburg, the former Washington and New Mexico State coach hired in 2017 to replace Mitchell as USATF relays coach, learned his wife had been diagnosed with cancer shortly before the Olympic Trials in June and decided not to make the trip to Japan in order to care for her. In addition, there was no relay camp or pre-Olympic holding camp, which meant no practice opportunities for the US relay squad, which had been officially announced on July 6. At no point in 2021 did Richburg participate in any in-person coaching of the relay athletes.
With Richburg sidelined, day-to-day coaching duties in Tokyo fell to Mechelle Freeman, herself a 2007 world champion and 2008 Olympian in the 4×100 relay who had served as USATF assistant relays coach since 2015. Richburg remained in daily contact remotely from North Carolina. Freeman says she advocated for a relay camp, but ultimately did not have a say in the decision and was told there would be no camp for COVID-related reasons.
Wallace Spearmon, another 2007 world champion in the 4×100 who had served alongside Freeman as assistant USATF relays coach from 2017-19, was also in Tokyo. But while Spearmon was present at some of Team USA’s early relay practices, he says he was under the impression that he was in Tokyo because of his role as USOPC’s athletes’ advisory council rep for track & field.
“Some of the athletes were asking questions, and I told them, you need to ask your relay coach,” Spearmon says. “I don’t even think I was at the track when they ran the mixed relay because I didn’t want any confusion about me and my involvement with the relays.”
But the first relay of the Olympics, the mixed-gender 4×400, went poorly for the United States. The team underperformed, earning the bronze behind Poland and the Dominican Republic after initially being disqualified in the heats for an illegal pass (the team was later reinstated after it was determined that officials placed the Americans’ outgoing runner in the wrong spot). After that race, Spearmon says he was approached by an official from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
Hey, why aren’t you helping out? Spearmon says the official asked him.
Well they asked me if I wanted to help and I said no. I did not think that’s why I came over here.
Yeah, that’s why you’re over here.
Naw, that’s not what I was told.
Spearmon says that the official — whom he declined to name — then showed him USATF’s roster, listing Spearmon’s name as part of the relay coaching staff, and told him to get involved.
Richburg, who was also relay coach at the 2008 Olympics alongside Brooks Johnson when both the men’s and women’s 4×100 teams were DQ’d, did not respond to an interview request from LetsRun.com, other than to confirm that he was not in Tokyo. US Olympic coach Mike Holloway did not respond to an interview request. USOPC directed LetsRun.com’s interview request to USATF’s communications department. USATF did not respond to emailed questions requesting clarification on Spearmon’s role in Tokyo.
Three days before the 4×100 prelims, Spearmon told Freeman that he had been instructed to become involved in the relay teams and said that he would coach the men’s 4×100 and that she would coach the women. This was not an unfamiliar situation; that had been their arrangement when coaching US teams at junior championships from 2017-19.
When she left for Tokyo, Freeman was aware that Spearmon would also be making the trip and knew he might be able to help in a relay capacity if necessary. But she says she does not know which official told Spearmon to get involved in the relay and that she was not part of that decision.
“When you have someone like Wallace who, all of a sudden, three days out is coming into the situation and not really understanding the depth of preparations behind the scenes and then trying to be the hero, it was just a lot that he was trying to do in a short amount of time,” Freeman says.
Freeman added that she believes Spearmon had good intentions and inserted himself because he wanted to make sure the athletes had everything they needed to be successful.
“I thought there was a void that needed to be filled, so I stepped up and helped as much as I could,” Spearmon says, adding that Richburg still had full authority to make final decisions. “…Just trying to give a little structure to the program that they had ongoing there. It was a little difficult with our coach not being there at the time. It wasn’t the normal system. It wasn’t the structure that was designed by USATF to be implemented.”
When Spearmon took over, only two members of the 4×100 squad had actually practiced together at any point in 2021: Gillespie and Micah Williams, the two men brought to Tokyo specifically to run the 4×100, who had worked together in sessions since arriving in Japan. Bromell, Baker, and Kerley, the three Americans entered in the individual 100, were all legitimate gold-medal contenders for the biggest prize in track & field. Their focus, upon arrival in Tokyo, was on their individual event. Particularly after what happened before the individual 100 during a relay practice at the 2019 World Championships.
“In Doha, in one particular practice, Mike Rodgers started cramping up as he was about to pass the exchange to Justin [Gatlin] and it was almost a crash,” Freeeman says. “So now you’re going to have an issue between the relay coaches and the personal coaches, because they’re trying to focus on the individual 100 — and you’re trying to get their athlete hurt, is what they’re thinking. So what that turned into for the Olympics, none of the personal coaches want to talk about the relays or do anything with the relays a few days before the open 100.”
In Tokyo, the individual 100 final was on the night of Sunday, August 1. Bromell, Baker, and Kerley all raced that night and had Monday off, leaving just two sessions for those three plus Gillespie and Williams to practice before Thursday morning’s 4×100 prelims. Noah Lyles and Kenny Bednarek, who Spearmon says likely would have been subbed in for Bromell and Gillespie had the US made the final, never practiced with the group at any time. They too were focused on their individual races with the 200 final being held Wednesday night, less than 14 hours before the men’s 4×100 heats got underway.
Initially, Gillespie had been practicing as the second leg, taking handoffs from Williams, who would run leadoff. But, according to Gillespie in a YouTube video breaking down the race, the order for the prelim switched after Bromell failed to make the individual 100 final. Bromell would run leadoff, Kerley second, Baker third, and Gillespie on anchor — the same leg he ran in the heats of the 2019 World Championships.
Some of those decisions — particularly Baker, who rarely runs the 200, handling the curve on leg 3 — drew criticism after the fact. Spearmon says it was Baker himself who suggested he run third.
“As far as the first three runners, that’s where they all felt comfortable,” Spearmon says.
On race day, a humid, 90-degree morning in Tokyo, the US was placed in lane three in the second of two heats, alongside Turkey, China, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Ghana, and Canada. The top three teams from each heat, plus the next two fastest times would advance to Friday night’s final.
On paper, the US entered as overwhelming favorites. In Bromell, Baker, and Kerley, the US had the first-, third-, and fifth-fastest men in the world in 2021, all on one team. Gillespie, with a 9.96 sb, was ranked 17th — which would have made him the second-fastest leg on any other team.
Any relay coach worth their salt will tell you that the goal in the relay is to keep the baton moving as fast as possible.
“In order to do that, the exchange needs to take place in the last, approximately, five meters of the exchange zone,” says Dennis Shaver, whose LSU men and women finished first and second in the 4×100 at this year’s NCAA Championships. “Any exchange that is taking place earlier that that, the baton is going to be, more than likely, slowing down.”
Waiting to hand off until the last five meters can be risky, however, especially for a team that hasn’t worked together very much, because if the initial handoff attempt is not successful, there is almost no room to correct it before running out of the zone. So in Tokyo, the Americans elected to play it safe and hand off early in the zones. Even if they lost some time, the thinking went, the Americans’ overwhelming talent would still carry them through to the final.
Yet the “safe” approach also carried a risk. Handing off earlier in the zone means less time for the outgoing runner to get up to speed — and increases the chances of the incoming runner approaching too quickly.
“We knew that a person was going to run up on a person,” Gillespie said on YouTube.
Once the gun fired, Bromell, running leadoff, did little to improve the Americans’ position.
“You can hear Ato [Boldon] in the broadcast say it,” Gillespie said. “There was no stagger made up, at all. It’s the truth.”
The second exchange is where things really began to unravel. Kerley, as feared, ran up on Baker, and by the time Baker stuck his right arm for the baton, it was already past him. Kerley, now running beside Baker rather than behind him, was ultimately able to slot the baton into Baker’s searching hand, but the exchange cost the US precious time.
And yet, by the time Gillespie received the baton with 100 meters to run, the US was still in qualifying position, third place behind China and Italy. In hindsight, all Gillespie had to do was not get passed by three teams and the US would advance. But Canada, anchored by Olympic 200 champion Andre De Grasse, quickly sped past them. Then, shockingly, so did Germany and Ghana, anchored by Lucas Ansah-Peprah (10.20 pb) and Joseph Amoah (10.01 pb), respectively.
The US had run 38.10, a time that would have advanced in every previous Olympics — a time that would have medalled as recently as 2012 — yet it was good only for sixth in their heat, .02 behind Ghana, which earned the final time qualifier.
The closest parallel to 2021 is actually a race in which the US earned the silver medal: the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Just as in Tokyo, the Athens team was utterly loaded — more so, in fact, given the ’04 squad had Gatlin, Maurice Greene, and Shaw Crawford, who had gone 1-2-4 in the individual 100. Just as in Tokyo, the ’04 squad had practiced handoffs only twice before the race. And just as in Tokyo, the team got the baton around the track safely, but a poor second exchange — between Gatlin and Coby Miller — cost the US precious time. Even the times were almost identical: 38.08 for the ’04 team, 38.10 for the ’21 version.
And that, says Boldon, the NBC sprint analyst and four-time Olympic medalist, signals a larger change. Even with the talent available to them, the US cannot afford to sleepwalk through the prelims at a major championship.
“The rest of the world has caught up,” Boldon says. “It used to be that the US, their sprinters were so much better and they had so much more depth, it didn’t matter: get the baton around, and you’d not only qualify, you’d be in position to be on the podium. Those days are over.”
Still, the table below shows that, based on season’s best, the US had more than a three-quarters of a second advantage over the rest of the teams in Tokyo:
100m season’s bests of 2020 Olympic men’s 4×100 legs, with Olympic prelim results
|Country||Leg #1 SB||Leg #2 SB||Leg #3 SB||Leg #4 SB||SB total||Prelim time||Difference|
So why, if the US’s problems are systemic, has the US men’s team struggled so much more than the women? In the last 15 global champs, the women have won five golds, five silvers, and a bronze, with four DNF/DQs. That’s a “failure rate” of 26.7%, compared to 66.7% for the men. And the most recent of those failures was 2009; in the last eight global champs, the American women finished either first or second, save for the 2019 Worlds when they were third (with a team that featured just one individual 100m finalist).
Carl Lewis, a two-time Olympic champ in the 4×100 turned coach at the University of Houston (2017 and 2018 NCAA men’s 4×100 champs), says the simple physics of the men’s relay makes it more prone to mistakes.
“The men are bigger, they take up more space in the lane, and they’re faster,” he said in an Instagram video. “So it is more difficult.”
Shaver and Boldon are less charitable. While they noted the US’s medal record, they also believe some of those silvers and bronzes could have been golds with smoother handoffs.
“The women haven’t been great,” Boldon says. “The women have been better [than the men], but the women should win, I think, more than they do.”
Lewis has been a vocal critic of the failures of the US relay team, and after the men’s DNQ, he ripped the team for a lack of leadership.
The USA team did everything wrong in the men's relay. The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership. It was a total embarrassment, and completely unacceptable for a USA team to look worse than the AAU kids I saw .
— Carl Lewis (@Carl_Lewis) August 5, 2021
Lewis, who said he is not seeking the job of USATF relay coach, believes that, moving forward, there needs to be more autonomy in a system where agents, personal coaches, and shoe companies can attempt to insert themselves.
“I’ve been [at championships] with Cameron Burrell and Kahmari Montgomery and coach Leroy Burrell and I went there and we saw it,” Lewis said in his post-race reaction video on Instagram. “Often times, there’s a lot of input. It does not need to be there. The person in charge needs to be in charge.”
Boldon believes that whoever is in charge of the US relay program moving forward — whether it is Richburg, Freeman, Spearmon, or someone else — needs to be empowered.
“As somebody who has been around the Jamaicans, who has been around the Trinnies, I can tell you, there is an influence by the personal coaches on the composition of the 4×100 [in the USA] that you don’t get in a lot of other countries,” Boldon says. “It just does not happen.”
Looking at Tokyo specifically, Freeman says a mix of things went wrong, but one above all.
“It all comes down to a lack of practice,” Freeman says.
For comparison, Shaver’s LSU squad will typically spend one 10-15 minute session per week practicing relays — in addition to racing frequently throughout the season. This past spring, LSU ran a men’s 4×100 at nine meets. Three of the four men who ran on the winning team at NCAAs — Dylan Peebles, Noah Williams, and Terrance Laird — ran at all nine meets.
A lack of practice was also the explanation cited by Gillespie and Baker, who was running his first global championship outdoors.
“I’ve run 9.8,” Baker said after the race in Tokyo. “So honestly just trying to time that [handoff] up perfectly with a couple practices, it’s a little difficult.”
Yet the 2019 team, Freeman says, didn’t practice much more than the 2021 group. And they didn’t have a pre-meet relay camp, either. Why did that team win the gold in an American record of 37.10 while the 2021 squad couldn’t make the final?
Well for one thing, the US almost didn’t win the gold in Doha. The US only had the ninth-fastest time in the preliminaries — had they been in heat 2, they wouldn’t have advanced — but sneaked in as the final auto qualifier from heat 1.
But the biggest difference in 2019, Freeman says, is that the US had two veterans, Gatlin and Rodgers, handling the middle legs, which require an athlete to both give and receive the baton. Even if they hadn’t practiced together much that year, those two had built up experience through relay teams and relay camps of the past. That experience allowed the two individual world champions (and least-experienced relay men), Christian Coleman and Lyles, to bookend the relay and focus on only one handoff each.
The optimal solution, of course, is to have a relay with no inexperienced runners. That would require getting the members of the relay team together earlier in the year for practice.
But wait, you say. How can we do that if we don’t know who is going to be on the team until the US championships?
It is true that, under World Athletics rules, the four Americans entered in the individual 100 (the three athletes and the alternate, aka the top four finishers at the US championships) must be included in the relay pool. Which means that one of the most frequently proposed solutions — just get four sprinters together and practice all the time until their handoffs are perfect — is not actually tenable.
But Boldon says the idea that USATF can’t do anything to prepare until the team is known is wrong.
“You need to start training like a team and as a unit, because that’s what these other countries are doing,” Boldon says. “Now okay, I wouldn’t have known that Kerley was going make the team [this year]…But every year, you [could] invite the fastest eight to ten Americans to camp and let them understand, look, obviously three or four of you guys are gonna form the team, but everybody needs to practice.”
In the past, the US had a way of developing that rapport: a series of spring domestic relay program, which included the Texas Relays, Florida Relays, Mt. SAC Relays, and Penn Relays. These meets would be held on college campuses, but offered opportunities for pros to come together and practice being part of a relay team.
“That got defunded,” says Jon Drummond, USATF relay coach from 2010-12 (Drummond is currently serving an eight-year ban for his role in the Tyson Gay doping case). “And when it got defunded, the [meets were still there but] it wasn’t organized. [Before they got defunded], we had organized camps where you came under the guise of running for Team USA and you wore red, white, and blue. We had that at the Penn Relays with USA vs the World.”
(Of course, even when the spring relay season was more prominent, the US was still getting DQ’d at major championships.)
As a result, only one of the athletes who represented Team USA in Tokyo had run a relay recently — Bromell, who ran two 4x100s earlier this spring. Gillespie hadn’t run on a relay since the 2019 Worlds, Baker since April 2018, and Kerley hadn’t run on a 4×100 since his college days at Texas A&M in 2017.
The COVID pandemic made it more difficult to compete in relay meets in 2020 and 2021. But if pros are to return to the spring relay scene moving forward, there must be an incentive. Most professional sprinters’ careers don’t last long, and relay meets don’t pay. During his own career, Spearmon says he was excluded from a relay pool because he opted to compete (and make money) at a Diamond League instead. If USATF is truly committed to improving its relay program, it might consider compensating prospective relay athletes for their attendance at camps or relay meets.
“We do want to be a part of the relay,” Spearmon says, “but at the same time too, we have to make a living.”
Neither Spearmon nor Freeman blame the athletes for the result in Tokyo.
“It’s a combination of it all,” Freeman says. “It’s not just one person or one thing. It’s a collective failure.”
Freeman agreed that incentives for relay camps/practices are important and said that it is a priority for USATF to fix the current system, considering it represents five relay opportunities (men’s and women’s 4×100 and 4×400 and the mixed 4×400).
“We can consistently bring five medals,” Freeman says. “If we can really invest in and support the system, I feel like the results will reflect that.”
Even if the spring relay program and summer training camps return ahead of next year’s World Championships in Eugene, practice does not guarantee a perfect result in the relay. After all, the US had a relay camp in 2015 and still got DQ’d in the final. And while many countries practice a lot more than the US, that’s not always the case. In 2016, after Jamaica won its second straight Olympic gold, Asafa Powell revealed that the team had staged just two practice sessions all year — and only one with Usain Bolt present.
So what else explains the Americans’ lack of success in recent years? Powell had a theory after that race in Rio.
“I think they are more focused on beating us than running a proper race…it’s the pressure of trying to beat the Jamaicans,” Powell says.
There may have been a little bias in that answer — there are few things Jamaicans love more than beating the Americans in the sprints — but Boldon believes there is something to it.
“Usain Bolt said a few years ago, ‘something always goes wrong in the relay,'” Boldon says. “It was his opinion at the time that the United States does not adapt well when things go wrong within the course of the race itself. Jamaica for example, from 2008-16, won every Olympics and every Worlds that they started. How did they do that? Did they not run into some issues? Did they not have problems during the race? Of course they did. Everybody does. But they figured it out. You have to be able to think and react in real time. And I just think the US men’s team has done a really poor job of it.”
One of the athletes Boldon coaches, Briana Williams, was slated to run the women’s relay — and only the relay — in Tokyo. Ahead of the Games, one of the things Boldon drilled with her, over and over, was what to do if the runner in front of her left too early. Flash forward to the Olympic final and as Williams, running leadoff, headed into the first exchange, the world’s fastest woman, Elaine Thompson-Herah, took off early. But the 19-year-old Williams kept her cool, (barely) made the pass, and Jamaica won the gold.
“You have to prepare for bad stuff,” Boldon says. “It’s improv. And if you’re not coached well at what to do when something happens, then it goes bad really quickly.”
Occasionally, however, the madness of the relay can overwhelm even the best preparation.
In the final of the 2011 World Championships, the US’s third leg, Darvis Patton, was tearing around the inside of lane 4, trying his best to keep up with world champion Yohan Blake of Jamaica. Patton had been involved in botched final exchanges at the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Worlds, but this time, disaster struck before he even had the chance to hand off to anchor Walter Dix. As Patton approached Dix, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, the tank-like British anchor, stood up to begin his leg on the outside of lane 3. Aikines-Aryeetey’s elbow hit Patton’s stomach, sending the American flying. Patton got a dislocated shoulder for his trouble — and the Americans got an unfortunate DNF.
Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare, shit happens.