Golden rule: For US relays, holding onto baton is job No. 1
PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas (AP) The smartest minds in American sprinting have spent years trying to solve the riddle of why, as often as not, U.S. relay teams have struggled so mightily to get the baton around the track when the stakes are highest.
Leave it to the Jamaican, Usain Bolt, to come up with what might be the most plausible answer: ''They tend to panic.''
The American sprinters are gathered this week at an Olympic training camp outside of Houston, once again trying to create chemistry and find answers to a problem that never really goes away.
Eight times since 1995, the American men have either been disqualified or failed to get the baton around the track at the Olympics or world championships. The women, who set the world record in the 4x100 at the London Games, aren't immune to the butterfingers, either. They've mishandled the exchange in two of the last three Olympics. And at last year's world championships, in the 4x400, where the pass shouldn't be a big deal, a bobble cost them the gold.
The key to changing that dynamic: ''I think just being relaxed,'' said Tyson Gay, who helped the Americans get the baton around four years ago, only to cost them the silver medal because of a doping violation. ''No pressure, just relax. That's all I think.''
If only it were that simple.
In a sport built on individual accomplishments, the relay is that singular opportunity for the country that routinely wins the most medals in track to show that it can, in fact, function like a team.
Since 2008, that pressure has been coupled with the fact that Jamaica - while not as deep across the entire scope of track and field - has the fastest man on Earth.
''When you've got Michael Rodgers standing in the third relay zone and Jamaica and us are shoulder to shoulder and he's looking at Usain Bolt on the anchor leg, that's going to impact your athletic performance,'' said Duffy Mahoney, chief of sport performance for USA Track and Field.
Last year at world championships, Gay and Rodgers mishandled the final handoff and the exchange came outside the legal passing zone. It disqualified the Americans and sent Bolt on what could've been a jog to the finish line for the gold.
Asked to explain Jamaica's baton strategy, Bolt said there was no magic to it.
''We know the key thing is just to get the baton around,'' he said. ''Because with the U.S., we know we always have the best team, and they tend to panic. Pressure gets to them sometimes.''
Bolt doesn't have to be on the track for things to go bad.
In 2004, then again in 2008, the U.S. women mishandled the baton in the 4x100. The 2008 miss, combined with a botched exchange between Gay and Darvis Patton in the men's race, contributed to the United States being shut out of gold medals in all six sprint races for the first time in Olympic history. That led to a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way the U.S. handles relay training, which now requires sprinters to attend training camps and participate in a number of relays before the Olympics.
Carl Lewis, who won relay gold in 1984 and 1992 (he wasn't on the team that got DQ'd for passing outside the zone in the 1988 qualifying heats), has been one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. team. He says there's too much politics involved in who gets coaching assignments and who gets to run in the relays, and not enough time devoted to perfecting the art of the baton pass.
''I've been to (junior) nationals, I've been to (junior) Hershey's meets, I've never seen a baton hit the ground,'' Lewis said in March. ''What they need to do is get a retired college coach who's going to tell the agents to kiss off, and tell the athletes to get in line and know how to put together a relay.''
In charge of the relay operation this year is Dennis Mitchell, who has relay gold and silver from 1992 and 1996, but whose appointment to that role was controversial. Mitchell served a two-year doping ban and was caught up with Trevor Graham, Marion Jones and the BALCO doping scandal.
What, in Mitchell's mind, does it take for a perfect relay exchange?
''What doesn't it take?'' he said. ''The girls are running at anywhere from 10 to 13 miles an hour, the guys are somewhere around 20. So there's a lot of moving parts that happen when you're going through a zone.''
When things hit on all cylinders, the results can be incredible. In London four years ago, the team of Allyson Felix, Tianna Madison (now Bartoletta), Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter ran the oval in 40.82 seconds to break a 27-year-old world record.
And when they don't, the second-guessing begins.
''The closer the race, the more pressure it puts on the athlete,'' Mahoney said. ''Sometimes, no matter how well-prepared they are and how good they are, things happen. It's sports.''