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U.S. relays stun: earn world record gold and settle for first-ever silver


LONDON -- A medal table has no soul. It's a collection of bloodless numbers aligned in rows and columns next to the names and tidy, three-letter abbreviations for countries competing at the Olympic Games. This many gold, that many silver and then the bronze. And finally, a total of all the medals, providing nations with cold, statistical evidence of their apparent success or failure. The track and field medal table has been very kind to the United States at these Olympic Games, and on Friday night in the Olympic Stadium, sold out 80,000 strong for the eighth consecutive night, a single gold medal was added to the U.S. total, and a single silver as well, running America's total to 26 medals, far more than any other nation, eight of them gold. The numbers are instructive, yet they are also insufficient.

Friday night's gold medal came in the women's 4X100-meter relay, in which the U.S. team of Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter ran a world record 40.82 seconds, slicing an unthinkable .55 seconds off a mark that had been tied for the second-oldest record on the women's side of the sport, a 41.27-second performance 27 years ago by an team from East Germany that had almost certainly been part of a notorious state-run steroid program. (More later on the complexities of this torch-passing).

It was one of the most stunning, record-breaking moments in the recent history of the sport, far more so than sublime Kenyan David Rudisha's 800-meter world record on Thursday night, in which Rudisha shaved a tenth of a second off his own record set less than two years ago. Far from the finish, alone 200 meters from the line after running the second leg, Felix watched Jeter carry the stick across the line and then turned her eyes to the scoreboard. "I saw the time flash,'' said Felix, "and I said 'That is not a four-by-one time. This is in-sane.''

Friday's American silver medal came 40 minutes later and it, too, was stunning in its own way, if not entirely unexpected. It came in the men's 4X400-meter relay, and it was the first time in in 60 years that the United States was beaten to the finish line when finishing without complications. (The U.S. won in 2000, but was stripped for doping by three runners on its team, boycotted the entire Games in 1980 and couldn't field a complete team in 1972, after two runners were banned for a victory stand demonstration and a third was injured). Yet seldom has a silver medal been more honorably won, enabled when 25-year-old first-time Olympian Manteo Mitchell completed his semifinal leg on Thursday night despite breaking his fibula with 200 meters left in the race. "Every step I took was like jello,'' said Mitchell. "But the spirit of the U.S.A. was in my heart.''

The final in the 4X400 race took place as the stadium still buzzed in recognition of the second track and field world record at the Games. Expectations for U.S. sprint relay success -- both men's and women's -- have been lowered in recent years by a succession of infamous baton disasters. The women's 4X100-meter team did not compete in either of the last two Olympic finals, having twice failed to finish its semifinal heat. The last gold medal was in 1996 in Atlanta.

The 2012 U.S. team came from all corners of the sport. Leading off was Madison, 26, the 2005 world champion in the long jump who only this year began seriously running the 100 and 200 meters and finished fourth in the Olympic 100-meter final. She would pass to Felix, 26, the most decorated sprinter in U.S. track and field history and winner of a long-awaited first Olympic individual gold medal, at these Games in the 200 meters. The third leg would by run by Bianca Knight, 22, the youngest of the foursome, a Texan who had narrowly missed the Olympic team in the 100 meters and had just one chance to win a medal. And the anchor would be Jeter, the 32-year-old silver medalist in the Olympic 100 meters.

(There was mild controversy in the formation of the team; 2004 Olympic 100-meter silver medalist Lauryn Williams and Jeneba Tarmoh ran in the semifinal heat. Tarmoh, who had been involved in the Olympic trials dead heat controversy with Felix, in particular had expected to run in the final. Williams, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 100 meters, had been involved -- though not necessarily at fault -- in baton drops in both '04 and '08. Yet surely U.S.A. Track and Field relay coordinator Jon Drummond was swayed by the fact the Madison-Felix-Knight-Jeter foursome had run well together at the Penn Relays last April and seemed to possess a certain valuable chemistry).

They would face a Jamaican team they included London (and Beijing) 100-meter champion Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce and London 100-meter bronze medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown. Yet it seems the U.S. team had little problem with anxiety. "When we were in the call room [the last stop for track athletes before coming to the track], we were having so much fun,'' said Jeter. "At that moment, I knew we were going to run well. The main thing was, we trusted each other.''

Madison said, "We weren't thinking about a world record, we were just trying to make sure we got the stick around.''

It was Madison who spectacularly set the tone for the gold medal, and the world record. Running one lane outside Fraser-Pryce, a fearsome starter, Madison gave up no ground. She had a faster reaction time (.168) than Fraser-Pryce (.179) and, more importantly, a low and powerful drive phase around the first curve. To win the race, Jamaica needed Fraser-Pryce to dominate Madison and she didn't come close. Madison passed cleanly to Felix (and then stumbled after giving up the baton). Felix, who came in with world championship golds in the 4X100 meters from 2007 and 2011, ran her customary clean straightaway (she will also run on Saturday night's 4X400 relay, with a chance for a third gold medal) and passed to Knight, who outran Campbell-Brown on the curve and gave Jeter a huge lead.

Jeter, who has been consistently the best women's 100-meter sprinter in the world for three years (she won the 2011 world title, and narrowly lost by .03 to Fraser-Pryce in the Olympic final), took a relatively safe pass from Knight and tore loose down the stretch. She's a powerful sprinter, as muscular in stride as in appearance. Two strides out from the line, she pointed her baton at the Omega clock that sits on the infield grass just past the finish line, as if demanding that it stop on the world record. "I was looking at the clock and I saw 37, 38, 39,'' said Jeter. "I didn't expect to see 40.82. But I was thinking in my heart: 'We just did it.'''

Felix, who has been a professional for a decade, is acutely attuned to the history of her sport in all its forms. She ran a brilliant 21.69 for 200 meters at the Olympic trials, but because Florence Griffith Joyner ran a mind-bending 21.34 in 1988, Felix will never sniff the world record. Ditto for anyone chasing Flo-Jo's 10.49 for 100 meters (which is believed to have been strongly wind-assisted), and Marita Koch's 47.60 for 400 meters. The latter, like the 4X100-meter record, is tainted by the exposure of East German state papers that detailed systemic doping of all athletes. There have long been whispers about Griffith Joyner's records, but never a shred of proof.

So Felix, in particular, was amazed at the time of the relay performance. "It was an absolutely unreal feeling,'' said Felix. "For so long, the women's sprint records have been so out of reach. To look up and see a world record was crazy, because you didn't think it was something that would happen.''

(Tarmoh, meanwhile, did not come to the stadium, and instead watched the race on television in the Olympic athletes' village. She, like Williams, will receive a gold medal, but early round runners do not participate in medal-and-national anthem ceremonies at the stadium. "It's a bittersweet feeling,'' she said in a text message after the race. "I'm happy the team got gold and broke the world record, but I wish I could have contributed more by running the leg I deserved.'').

As always in track and field, the performance will be viewed through the prism of the sport's uncertain history with doping. Many will celebrate the U.S. victory for taking down one of the likely most drug-infested records on the books. Other will question the methods by which a longstanding doped record could come down. (The same logic that many apply to Lance Armstrong's Tour de France victories: If everybody was doping, how is it that the winner was not? It is a painful cycle that makes seeming excellence difficult to celebrate without guilt. Yet there is no ambiguity about this: The U.S. women ran a brilliant race with flawless baton-passing, which can shave tenths off a final time. And the London track is ``crazy fast,'' in the words of U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, possibly the fastest ever for a major championship.

The men's 4X400 ran as U.S. fortunes on the penultimate night of track and field at the Games had taken a turn toward the heartbreaking. Following the women's world record relay, Morgan Uceny, 27, the No. 1-ranked women's 1,500-meter runner in the world in 2011, tripped and fell at the bell lap while moving into position to challenge in a tactical race the seemed to favor her sprint speed. Uceny had also fallen in last year's world championship 1,500-meter final, and on Friday night knelt on the track, head down and emotionally distraught until well after winner Asli Cakir Alptekin crossed the line.

Into this vibe rolled the men's 4X400-meter race. Mitchell had run the leadoff leg in Thursday's semfinal. He had felt his ankle give way halfway around. "I was thinking I need to stop,'' said Mitchell. "But saw [second leg] Josh Mance up at the starting line, and he was waving me around. I couldn't leave those three guys behind me hanging.''

Team USA qualified easily, and Mitchell watched the final from the apron of the track, near the finish line, escorted by volunteers whom he then walked past to get closer. He wore a boot on this left leg. In its most historically dominant Olympic event, the U.S. had already been disadvantaged by an injury to 2008 Olympic 400-meter champion LaShawn Merritt, who pulled up early in his 400-meter heat in London and could not run in the relay. (The relay was also hurt by the waning performances of 2004 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion Jeremy Wariner, who is no longer as fast as he once was, and then tore his hamstring while training in London).

U.S. leadoff runner Bryshon Nellum, whose tale of surviving three gunshot wound in his legs in an incident near the USC campus in the fall of 2008, earned him the honor of carrying the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony on Sunday night, took the lead on the first leg. Mance gave it up, but narrowly, and then Tony McQuay took it back. The anchor was 33-year-old, two-time Olympic 400-meter hurdles gold medalist Angelo Taylor, who had finished fifth in his specialty in London. Taylor is a veteran relay runner with two Olympic gold medals, but he had not expected to run the anchor here. That was supposed to be Merritt.

Taylor ran a cagey leg, allowing anchor Ramon Miller of the Bahamas to get close, and then trying to pull away in the final 150 meters. But Miller overhauled Taylor in the final 50 meters and won the gold. "I just fell short,'' said Taylor. "I really didn't hold up the tradition.''

Somewhere in the belly of the Olympic scoring system, a silver medal was punched into the tables. Right after the world record gold. Team USA is likely to win at least 28 medals, and could squeeze out as many as 30, which had been the three-year USATF organizational goal and hasn't been achieved since Barcelona in 1992. (Yet the men's team needs an unlikely upset of Jamaica in the 4X100-meters to avoid finishing with just three gold medals, which would be their lowest total in history). But these are just tiny digits, hiding larger truths.