LONDON — It’s about that time when the United States’ fleetest, brashest and most decorated sprint stars get together as a team — and drop batons. But not this year. Not at this Summer Games. The only things hitting the deck Friday night at Olympic Stadium were records — aging, yellowed, hallowed ones.
The U.S. women’s 4x100-meter relay team ended an Olympic medal drought dating from 1996 while shattering a 27-year-old, drug-tainted East German world record with a wild, gold-medal victory. And anchor Carmelita Jeter put the finishing touch on the historic moment with some Usain Bolt-esque showmanship and strutting.
“It was an absolutely unbelievable feeling,” said Allyson Felix, the 200-meter champion, who ran the second leg. “For so long . . . the records have been so out of reach. To look up and see we had a world record, it was just crazy.”
Earlier, the U.S. men running in the 4x100 relay heats made their own bit of history, surprising even themselves. They toppled a 19-year-old American record with Carl Lewis’s name etched on it, setting the stage for a run at Jamaica’s world record in Saturday’s final and a chance to claim the first U.S. medal in the event since 2000.
Only an injury-depleted U.S. men’s 4x400 relay team faltered, ending a streak of seven straight Olympic gold medals with a silver as relay veteran Angelo Taylor got chased down in the home stretch by a hard-running Bahamian anchor.
Yet even that disappointing result showed more team spirit and grit than the customary fractures from recent U.S. relay teams, which have shown time and again that individual stars don’t always make great constellations. The U.S. relay teamwork overrode other U.S. frustrations: Brad Walker, the 2007 world champion, did not get over the bar in the pole vault final, and Morgan Uceny got tripped from behind in the 1,500 final. In medal contention on the last lap, she fell, then left the track sobbing.
Joy, though, radiated elsewhere.
“It’s about Americans stepping out here with red, white and blue on, and it’s us against the world,” said Justin Gatlin, who ran the anchor leg for the 4x100 team. “When we come together, we can come out and break records like we did today.”
The night’s grandest stunner unfolded as Jeter powered through the homestretch in the 4x100 final, closing on the first U.S. Olympic gold in the race since 1996 in Atlanta. Steps before the line, Jeter cocked her head toward the track clock, stretched out her arm and pointed the baton at the time.
Seconds later, the clock confirmed what she had prematurely signaled to the world: “New WR,” it flashed.
“As I’m running, I’m looking at the clock, and I’m seeing the time, it’s like, 37, 38, 39,’” Jeter said. “In my heart, I said, ‘We just did it.’ ”
Jeter, Felix, Tianna Madison and Bianca Knight got the stick around in 40.82 seconds, surpassing the 41.37 put forth in 1985 during the era of systematic doping in East Germany.
“When I crossed the finish line, I had so many emotions,” Jeter said. “We haven’t been able to get the gold medal back to the U.S. since 1996, and we just made history.”
Jeter was so elated by the performance that she barely slowed down after passing the finish. She ran screaming and sprinting around the turn, going so fast she blew past Madison, who was rushing toward her to try to celebrate.
“I saw the time flashed . . . I was so confused for a second,” said Felix, who will run again Saturday after the U.S. women qualified for the 4x400-meter final. “I thought, ‘This is insane.’ Then I had to run 200 meters to catch up with them. It was just a beautiful thing.”
Several runners for Jamaica, which finished second in the event in a national record of 41.41 seconds, said they hoped the record-smashing performance would direct a bit of attention away from Jamaican two-time double-gold medalist Bolt.
“Everybody talks about Bolt,” said Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who ran the first leg for Jamaica. “Now they can talk about the ladies who are running some really wonderful times.”
In the men’s 4x100 heats, a businesslike Gatlin motored to the finish without flair, but with plenty of speed. Jeff Demps, Darvis Patton, Trell Kimmons and Gatlin managed 37.38 seconds, beating the U.S. record held by the ’92 and ’93 squads by 0.02 seconds.
The U.S. men’s 4x100 relay team has failed to pass the baton cleanly or avoid disqualification in the last two Olympic Games and two world championships. The team’s last success came at the Sydney Games in 2000, when the victorious team drew rebuke for a celebration some deemed over-the-top and unsportsmanlike.
We said, “Just get the stick around,” said Patton, who has been involved in several previous mishaps. “We did that, and the American record came with it. An American record, I never would have thought that.”
Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell and Carl Lewis hit the previous record time at the 1992 Games in Barcelona; Jon Drummond, Andrew Canson, Mitchell and Burrell did it again in Stuttgart in 1993.
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of having the bronze,” said Gatlin, who also will run in Saturday’s final, “but I want more.”
The U.S. 4x400 team needed more . . . reinforcements. In Thursday’s 4x400 heat in the event, Manteo Mitchell broke his fibula in the middle of the race, yet he completed his quarter, not wanting to let down his teammates and his nation.
But Mitchell, who watched Friday with his left leg in a boot and leaning on crutches, was scratched from the final — as had been 2008 Olympic 400 champion LaShawn Merritt and Jeremy Wariner, the ’08 silver medalist, also with injuries.
The sewn-together U.S. squad of Bryshon Nellum, Joshua Mance, Tony McQuay and Taylor couldn’t match Bahamas’ team, which featured Chris Brown at the leadoff and Ramon Miller at the anchor.
Taylor had a lead of 0.51 seconds when he got the baton, but he was passed in the last 60 of the race.
“I was exactly where I wanted to be at 300 meters,” Taylor said. “I wanted to kick, but my hamstring tightened up real bad. I tried to stay relaxed, but he went right by me . . . It was a tough race.”
A painful loss, but not an embarrassing one.
“We gave our best today,” Taylor said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough . . . Even though we took some hits . . . we came home with a silver. So thank God for that.”