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Pass the Breadsticks

American men are still terrible at passing a baton

July 25, 2022

The big news out of Eugene this weekend were the 4x100m sprint relays at the Track & Field World Championships, but before we get to the disaster, it's worth pointing out that the American women were spectacular. Despite the fact that Jamaica swept the medal stand in the women's 100m individual sprint, the American women, anchored by TeeTee Terry, somehow managed to beat them in the 4x100. It was a combination of a blistering opening run, great handoffs, and Taylor holding on for dear life at the end against Jamaica's Shericka Jackson, the woman who ran the second-fastest 200m time in the history of the sport earlier in the week. Watch:

That was incredible—an upset for the ages that would have blown minds if it happened in the more visible Olympics. Now for the bad part: The men are still a complete and utter mess.

Before we get to the blunder that cost them the gold in Eugene, it's worth looking at a bit of history. Between 1920 and 1976, the American men won all but one gold medal at the Olympics, and remained the top dog through their victory in 2000. Starting in 2004, though, the U.S. has not only been shut out of the gold in the men's 4x100—crazy enough, considering that they had five chances—but they've only won a single medal, a silver in 2004. Since then, there hasn't even been a trip to the medal stand. It's a wild stat, made wilder by the fact that they've had plenty of contenders in the individual event, and were favorites in every 4x100 except when Usain Bolt was racing.

Many have catalogued the failures, from dropped batons at Olympics to early or late hand-offs at world championships, Kevin Hart even did a stand-up bit about how bad they were, and when they failed to even qualify for the final at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Carl Lewis lit into the whole system on Twitter.

They did manage to win at the World Championships in 2019, and when they swept the medal stand at the individual event in Eugene—Fred Kerley winning gold, Marvin Bracy winning silver, Trayvon Brombell taking bronze—it appeared they might be able to end the curse for good.

Instead, they bungled it again. To be fair, Kerly and Brombell were sitting out the 4x100, but the U.S. still had the best team, and they still came to the anchor leg ahead of the Canadians, with Bracy—the fastest man in the race—set to take the baton. Then this happened:

The terrible last exchange let Andre De Grasse surge ahead of Bracy, and finish slightly ahead for the gold.

It's another facepalm moment for a team that should really be better. The explanation seems to be simple—they just don't practice as much as other countries, and when they're thrown together at the last minute, whatever technique they learn on the fly doesn't stand up to the pressure of a finals race. That's a crisis of leadership for an important event at the Olympics and world championships, and it's mind-boggling that for almost 20 years, nobody has been able to figure it out.