In the past 109 years, the U.S. men’s team has run the 4x100 relay 41 times in Olympics and world championships. Until Thursday, they either finished first or second (27 times) or got disqualified (13 times).

Only Thursday’s race fell in between, a dismal sixth-place finish in a qualifying heat. But embedded in the loss was the same issue that has caused most of those DQs: a spotty handoff. The team’s years of struggles have been marked by handoffs that ranged from unlucky to terrible.

Handoff problem

Disqualification

Medals:

Gold

Silver

Olympics

1912

1920

1924

1928

1932

1936

1948

1952

1956

1960

1964

1968

1972

World

championships

1976

Boycotted

the Olympics

1980

1984

1988

1992

1996

2000

Doping

2004

2008

Doping

2012

2016

Didn’t make final

2020

Handoff problem

Disqualification

Medals:

Gold

Silver

Olympics

1912

1920

1924

1928

1932

1936

1948

1952

1956

1960

1964

1968

1972

World

championships

1976

Boycotted

the Olympics

1980

1984

1988

1992

1996

2000

Doping

2004

2008

Doping

2012

2016

Didn’t make final

2020

Handoff problem

Disqualification

Medals:

Gold

Silver

Olympics

1912

1920

1924

1928

1932

1936

1948

1952

1956

1960

1964

1968

1972

World

championships

1976

Boycotted

the Olympics

1980

1984

1988

1992

1996

2000

Doping

2004

2008

Doping

2012

2016

Didn’t make final

2020

Handoff problem

Disqualification

Medals:

Gold

Silver

‘12

‘20

‘24

‘28

‘32

‘36

‘48

‘52

‘56

‘60

‘64

‘68

‘72

‘76

‘80

‘84

‘88

‘92

‘96

‘00

‘04

‘08

‘12

‘16

‘20

Olympics

Boycotted

the Olympics

Doping

Didn’t

make

final

World

championships

Doping

Handoff problem

Disqualification

Medals:

Gold

Silver

‘12

‘20

‘24

‘28

‘32

‘36

‘48

‘52

‘56

‘60

‘64

‘68

‘72

‘76

‘80

‘84

‘88

‘92

‘96

‘00

‘04

‘08

‘12

‘16

‘20

Olympics

Boycotted

the Olympics

Doping

Didn’t

make final

World

championships

Doping

Crazy things happen when two of the world’s speediest humans try to pass a baton while running as fast as they can, so it’s not a shock that bad handoffs bedevil nearly every 4x100 relay team once in a while. The U.S. women were disqualified in 2004 and 2008, and all elite national teams have a few tales of handoff horrors.

But only the U.S. men have taken both winning relays and dropping the stick to such extremes, and their races have gotten more harrowing recently.

Since 1988, they have had nearly as many disqualifications (11) as medals (12), and all but two of those DQs were for bad handoffs. (Two, in 2001 and 2012, were because runners were suspended for doping violations.)

Why is a handoff so hard?

Unlike in the longer relays such as the 4x400, a handoff in the 4x100 happens when both runners are at or near top speed.

Also, the handoff is blind — the runner who is receiving the baton isn’t looking at the person who is handing it to him, which makes communication critical.

Finally, most elite teams try to hand off toward the latter part of the track’s exchange zone so the receiving runner is running at top speed when he gets the baton. That strategy means the baton hardly slows down, but the runners have little room for error.

The bottom line, said longtime LSU track coach Dennis Shaver, whose 4x100 teams just placed first (men) and second (women) in the NCAA championships, is “there’s got to be good chemistry within the group.”

How a 4x100 handoff works

Handoffs take place in three exchange zones on the 400 meter track. The third zone can be chaotic because runners from different teams are close together.

Start

3rd exchange zone

4th runner

2

3

1

4

5

6

Finish

7

8

1st exchange

zone

2nd runner

2nd exchange

zone

3rd runner

1.

Before the race, everyone except the leadoff runner will place a “go mark” — usually a piece of light-colored tape — on the track a certain number of steps before the exchange zone.

“Go mark”

1, 2, 3…

30 meters

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

2.

Then they get into position at the beginning of the exchange zone and wait, watching behind them.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

3.

When they see the oncoming runner reach the go mark, they take off and (ideally) do not look back again.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

4.

In the exchange zone, the passer yells “stick!” and the receiver puts out their arm behind them — arm high, palm open, thumb down.

“Stick!”

End of the

exchange

zone

5.

The passer pushes the baton into that hand, and the receiver’s fingers close around it.

6.

The pass has to be complete and the baton has to be in the receiver’s hand when they run out of the exchange zone.

End of the

exchange zone

How a 4x100 handoff works

Handoffs take place in three exchange zones on the 400 meter track. The third zone can be chaotic because runners from different teams are close together.

Start

3rd exchange zone

4th runner

2

3

1

4

5

6

Finish

7

8

1st exchange

zone

2nd runner

2nd exchange

zone

3rd runner

1.

Before the race, everyone except the leadoff runner will place a “go mark” — usually a piece of light-colored tape — on the track a certain number of steps before the exchange zone.

“Go mark”

1, 2, 3…

30 meters

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

2.

Then they get into position at the beginning of the exchange zone and wait, watching behind them.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

3.

When they see the oncoming runner reach the go mark, they take off and (ideally) do not look back again.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

4.

In the exchange zone, the passer yells “stick!” and the receiver puts out their arm behind them — arm high, palm open, thumb down.

“Stick!”

End of the

exchange

zone

5.

The passer pushes the baton into that hand, and the receiver’s fingers close around it.

6.

The pass has to be complete and the baton has to be in the receiver’s hand when they run out of the exchange zone.

End of the

exchange zone

How a 4x100 handoff works

Handoffs take place in three exchange zones on the 400 meter track. The third zone can be chaotic because runners from different teams are close together.

Start

3rd exchange zone

4th runner

2

3

1

4

5

6

7

8

Finish

1st exchange

zone

2nd runner

2nd exchange

zone

3rd runner

1.

Before the race, everyone except the leadoff runner will place a “go mark” — usually a piece of light-colored tape — on the track a certain number of steps before the exchange zone.

“Go mark”

1, 2, 3…

30 meters

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

2.

Then they get into position at the beginning of the exchange zone and wait, watching behind them.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

3.

When they see the oncoming runner reach the go mark, they take off and (ideally) do not look back again.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

4.

In the exchange zone, the passer yells “stick!” and the receiver puts out their arm behind them — arm high, palm open, thumb down.

“Stick!”

End of the

exchange

zone

5.

The passer pushes the baton into that hand, and the receiver’s fingers close around it.

6.

The pass has to be complete and the baton has to be in the receiver’s hand when they run out of the exchange zone.

End of the

exchange zone

How a 4x100 handoff works

Handoffs take place in three exchange zones on the 400 meter track. The third zone can be chaotic because runners from different teams are close together.

Start

3rd exchange zone

4th runner

2

3

1

4

5

Finish

6

7

8

1st exchange zone

2nd runner

2nd exchange zone

3rd runner

1.

Before the race, everyone except the leadoff runner will place a “go mark” — usually a piece of light-colored tape — on the track a certain number of steps before the exchange zone.

“Go mark”

1, 2, 3, 4…

30 meters

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

2.

Then they get into position at the beginning of the exchange zone and wait, watching behind them.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

3.

When they see the oncoming runner reach the go mark, they take off and (ideally) do not look back again.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

4.

In the exchange zone, the passer yells “stick!” and the receiver puts out their arm behind them — arm high, palm open, thumb down.

“Stick!”

End of the

exchange zone

5.

The passer pushes the baton into that hand, and the receiver’s fingers close around it.

6.

The pass has to be complete and the baton has to be in the receiver’s hand when they run out of the exchange zone.

End of the

exchange zone

How a 4x100 handoff works

Handoffs take place in three exchange zones on the 400 meter track. The third zone can be chaotic because runners from different teams are close together.

Start

3rd exchange zone

4th runner

2

3

1

4

5

Finish

6

7

8

1st exchange zone

2nd runner

2nd exchange zone

3rd runner

1.

Before the race, everyone except the leadoff runner will place a “go mark” — usually a piece of light-colored tape — on the track a certain number of steps before the exchange zone.

“Go mark”

1, 2, 3, 4…

30 meters

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

2.

Then they get into position at the beginning of the exchange zone and wait, watching behind them.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

3.

When they see the oncoming runner reach the go mark, they take off and (ideally) do not look back again.

“Go mark”

Start of the

exchange zone

End of the

exchange zone

4.

In the exchange zone, the passer yells “stick!” and the receiver puts out their arm behind them — arm high, palm open, thumb down.

“Stick!”

End of the

exchange zone

5.

The passer pushes the baton into that hand, and the receiver’s fingers close around it.

6.

The pass has to be complete and the baton has to be in the receiver’s hand when they run out of the exchange zone.

End of the

exchange zone

The 30-meter exchange zone

Until a 2018 rule change, there was a 10-meter “fly zone” in which a receiving runner could build speed before a 20-meter exchange zone.

“Fly zone”

10 meters

Exchange zone

20 meters

New exchange zone

30 meters

Those two zones are now combined into one, which should make it nearly impossible to accidentally pass too early.

The 30-meter exchange zone

Until a 2018 rule change, there was a 10-meter “fly zone” in which a receiving runner could build speed before a 20-meter exchange zone.

“Fly zone”

10 meters

Exchange zone

20 meters

New exchange zone

30 meters

Those two zones are now combined into one, which should make it nearly impossible to accidentally pass too early.

The 30-meter exchange zone

Until a 2018 rule change, there was a 10-meter “fly zone” in which a receiving runner could build speed before a 20-meter exchange zone.

“Fly zone”

10 meters

Exchange zone

20 meters

New exchange zone

30 meters

Those two zones are now combined into one, which should make it nearly impossible to accidentally pass too early.

The 30-meter exchange zone

Until a 2018 rule change, there was a 10-meter “fly zone” in which a receiving runner could build speed before a 20-meter exchange zone.

“Fly zone”

10 meters

Exchange zone

20 meters

New exchange zone

30 meters

Those two zones are now combined into one, which should make it nearly impossible to accidentally pass too early.

The 30-meter exchange zone

Until a 2018 rule change, there was a 10-meter “fly zone” in which a receiving runner could build speed before a 20-meter exchange zone.

“Fly zone”

10 meters

Exchange zone

20 meters

New exchange zone

30 meters

Those two zones are now combined into one, which should make it nearly impossible to accidentally pass too early.

Typically the first and third runners will carry the baton in their right hand so they can run the turns on the inside half of the lane, which is slightly shorter than the outside half.

Right

hand

Left

hand

Lane is

4 feet

wide

They pass to the left hand of the second and anchor runners.

1st

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

4th

Typically the first and third runners will carry the baton in their right hand so they can run the turns on the inside half of the lane, which is slightly shorter than the outside half.

Right

hand

Left

hand

Lane is

4 feet

wide

They pass to the left hand of the second and anchor runners.

1st

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

4th

Typically the first and third runners will carry the baton in their right hand so they can run the turns on the inside half of the lane, which is slightly shorter than the outside half.

Right hand

Left hand

Lane is

4 feet wide

They pass to the left hand of the second and anchor runners.

1st

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

4th

Typically the first and third runners will carry the baton in their right hand so they can run the turns on the inside half of the lane, which is slightly shorter than the outside half.

Right hand

Left hand

Lane is

4 feet wide

They pass to the left hand of the second and anchor runners.

1st

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

4th

Typically the first and third runners will carry the baton in their right hand so they can run the turns on the inside half of the lane, which is slightly shorter than the outside half.

Right hand

Left hand

Lane is

4 feet wide

They pass to the left hand of the second and anchor runners.

1st

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

4th

What has gone wrong? All kinds of things.

Just about anything you can imagine going wrong in a relay has probably happened to the U.S. men in a major meet.

The handoff happened too late

1912

The first Olympic 4x100 relay was also the first time a heavily favored U.S. team didn’t make the final. All four men had won individual sprint medals, and they ran what would have been a world record (42.2 seconds) in their semifinal, but they were disqualified for passing outside the exchange zone.

1960

This was one of several times a last-minute substitution threw off a team’s chemistry. Ray Norton, fresh off three gold medals in the 1959 Pan Am Games, had practiced to be the team’s anchor. But after poor finishes in the 100 and 200, coaches moved him to Leg 2, as David Maraniss recounts in his book “Rome 1960.” Lead runner Frank Budd slowed as he hit the go mark, but Norton, nervous and eager for redemption, took off — fast. “I just absolutely flew, and he couldn’t catch me,” Norton said. Budd yelled for Norton to stop, but by the time he did, Norton was past the end of the handoff zone.

1988

Alternate Lee McNeil was running the anchor leg in the qualifying heat so 100-meter gold medalist Carl Lewis would be fresh for a world record push in the final. At the last turn, Calvin Smith initially missed the handoff to McNeil. The two finally connected at the edge of the exchange zone, and McNeil finished first in the heat. But three rival countries filed a protest, and video showed the handoff was completed just outside the zone.

1995

Jon Drummond was moving so fast when he approached Tony McCall, a college junior and injury fill-in, that McCall couldn’t stay ahead long enough to make a clean exchange. Drummond tried to pass twice and failed; by the time McCall had the baton, he was out of the zone.

2015

Despite two mandatory relay camps that were ordered specifically to address handoff problems, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers finished the final exchange outside the zone. Rodgers appeared to start too soon, and they ran out of room.

The handoff happened too early

Sometimes an exchange took place in the old fly zone before runners got to the exchange zone. The new 30-meter combined zone was designed to address this issue.

2009

In the qualifying heat, Shawn Crawford tried to pass too soon, and anchor runner Darvis Patton touched the baton before it entered the exchange zone.

2016

The U.S. team appeared to win bronze behind Jamaica and Japan — it would have been the first time the Americans placed third — but they were disqualified after it was determined that leadoff runner Rodgers completed the pass to Justin Gatlin too early.

The handoff didn’t happen at all

1997

Brian Lewis found out he would be running in the qualifying heat just 90 minutes before the start. He was supposed to pass to Tim Montgomery, but Montgomery mistimed his start and left too early. When he was almost to the end of the exchange zone with no baton in his hand, Montgomery slowed down and looked back just in time to see Lewis, flailing at full speed to try to catch up, run past and nearly clock him with an elbow. Montgomery ducked and never got the baton.

2005

In the first handoff of the first heat, Mardy Scales was passing to Leonard Scott when the baton fell to the track. Scott had his left hand around the baton, but it slipped out. “I put all the blame on myself,” a dejected Scott said.


Leonard Scott of the U.S., left, drops the baton during a changeover with Mardy Scales at the 2005 world championships. (Thomas Kienzle/AP)

2008

In the first round, Patton tried twice to pass to Gay. On the second attempt, the baton hit the heel of Gay’s hand and bounced to the track. Jamaica, led by Usain Bolt, won its first of three straight Olympic 4x100 relays. Gay and Patton both blamed themselves. “It probably was my fault,” Gay said. “If it hits your hand, you should have it. I’m a veteran. I’ve never dropped a stick in my life.”


Darvis Patton, center, and Tyson Gay, second from the left, drop the baton in the 2008 Olympics 4x100-meter relay. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Another runner invaded their lane

2011

“I think what we have to do is bring back the team camaraderie and patriotism and confidence in getting the stick around,” Jon Drummond said after USA Track & Field hired him as coach to help fix the relay problem. “It’s not rocket science.”

Drummond named his choices for the world championships relay final far earlier than usual to give the team more time to practice, and the Americans advanced to the final.

But as Patton sped toward the exchange zone, he was knocked off balance by the arm of Britain’s Harry Aikines-Aryeetey in the adjacent lane. Patton was completely upended and dislocated his left shoulder when he hit the track. Walter Dix, the individual 100-meter gold medalist, never got the baton.

The handoff took too much time

2004

The four men who ran the final had practiced handoffs together only twice, the New York Times reported. Coby Miller, running third, never heard Gatlin yell “Stick!” over the packed stadium crowd, so he slowed to wait for the baton. Gatlin, however, was right behind him and stepped on his foot, tearing a hole in Miller’s shoe. The pass, legal but awkward, cost them time. The next pass, to anchor Maurice Greene, was also legal and also awkward. The team lost to Britain by a hundredth of a second.


Justin Gatlin, right, hands off the baton to Coby Miller during 2004 Olympics. (David J. Phillip/AP)

2013

Mookie Salaam completed the first leg with about a meter lead, but anchor Gatlin appeared to go too early and then flailed into the Jamaicans’ lane trying to reach back for the baton. The U.S. team was not disqualified, but the mishap erased the lead, and Gatlin couldn’t make it up against Bolt.

2020

On Thursday in Tokyo, the U.S. team was again favored to win a gold medal. But in the qualifying heat, Fred Kerley and Ronnie Baker badly mistimed the second handoff and required at least three attempts to complete it.

They weren’t disqualified, but Baker and anchor Cravon Gillespie couldn’t make up the lost time. The team finished sixth in the heat and didn’t qualify for the final.


Fred Kerley and Ronnie Baker make an awkward, time-consuming handoff in Team USA's 4x100m relay heat Thursday in Tokyo. (Diego Azubel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Teams in some countries practice relays year-round. Team USA usually has at least one relay camp, but there was none this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier in the week, the relay runners practiced at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s high-performance center in Japan, trying to develop the chemistry and communication they need to go with their speed. It wasn’t enough.

“I think that’s one of the problems that’s been with the Olympics and the USA,” LSU’s Shaver said before Thursday’s debacle. "They just really don’t have enough time to get that kind of chemistry going.”

Top illustration by Artur Galocha with photo by Antonin Thuillier/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. Pictograms by Álvaro Valiño for The Washington Post. Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.