RIO DE JANEIRO – A track and field relay baton is just under a foot long, light, cylindrical and smooth. It is constructed for safe carriage around a running track and for easy passage from one runner to another in the course of a four-person relay. It is an unpretentious piece of sports equipment, yet it binds the men and women who exchange it like blood binds brothers and sisters. When the baton is successfully passed, it unites the relay members in a common cause and can bring joy to their shared work. When the relay baton is dropped or otherwise unsuccessfully passed, it sinks the relay members into embarrassment and anger at failing to successfully execute such a fundamental task. It makes them a team, larger than the sum of their parts; or it makes them disjointed loose parts, smaller than their individual abilities.
On Friday night at the Rio Olympic Stadium, four Jamaican men—one of them the greatest sprinter in history, running his last Olympic race—and four American women carried their batons into history by winning gold medals in the frantic and exhilarating 4x100-meter relay. There were flags and celebrations, an individual sport made briefly into a team game. Four other American men carried theirs into a familiar infamy, failing to successfully complete a single lap around the blue oval within the simple rules of the sport. They were informed of their malfeasance after completing nearly a full bronze medal-winning lap, and say this: They knew what to do. They pulled their American flags off their shoulders and sheepishly walked out of the arena is if they were treading on familiar ground. Which it very much was.
It was the penultimate night of track and field in Rio, where sensational performances have unfolded in an unfilled stadium and the sport has run to escape the shadow of doping that followed it here two weeks ago. That task is spread among the dozens of medal winners here; but disproportionately laid at the feet of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the transformational figure who will turn 30 years old on Sunday, the day of the closing ceremony, and who says that these, his fourth Olympics, are his last.
On a warm evening that felt like summer in his beloved Kingston, Bolt anchored Jamaica to victory in the 4x100-meter relay. He took the stick on even terms with the United States and Japan and predictably ran away in vintage Bolt fashion, swallowing up big pieces of earth with every stride, the crowd’s exultation growing until an explosion at the line. Like the very best of Bolt’s victories, he made it look both breathtaking and breathtakingly easy, a grown man outrunning children. It was his ninth Olympic gold medal, three each in the 100 and 200 meters and three in the 4x100-meter relay.
“It’s a relief, I’ve done it all,” Bolt said afterward. “I hope that I’ve set the bar high enough that no one can do it again.” Since winning his transcendent 100-meter gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt has raced 21 global championship races and won 20. His only non-victory was when he false-started in the 100 meters at the World Championships in 2011.
And on a large scale that is deeply meaningful to him, Bolt has helped lift Jamaica from a running curiosity with occasional medalists to a worldwide sprint power. Seven times Bolt has run on a championship 4x100-meter relay. Seven times Jamaica have won gold. (Although, pesky detail, because leadoff man Nesta Carter tested positive for steroids from a frozen and re-tested sample from the 2008 Olympics, Bolt could lose one of those medals).
That is a relay dominance that once belonged to the U.S. men, but long ago dissolved into dark comedy. Last night Jamaica was first across the line in 37.27 seconds. Japan finished second in 37.60, with the United State close behind in third at 37.62 seconds. But minutes later, the U.S. was disqualified for an illegal baton pass on the first exchange between leadoff runner Mike Rodgers and second leg Justin Gatlin. It was the seventh consecutive time that the United States either failed to complete the 4x100 or was otherwise stripped of a result.
Once the touchstone of great sprinting, the U.S. last won a medal in a global championship 4x100-meter relay in 2007. Obviously Bolt and his Jamaican teammates are to blame for taking gold off the table, but the U.S. has been unable to win any medal behind them. “It’s weird,” said U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay, who has been directly involved in four of the six disasters. “I was so shocked, I couldn’t even shed a tear.”
The brutal and ongoing incompetence of the U.S. was highlighted not only by Jamaica’s contrasting brilliance —“We always make sure to get the stick around,” said Jamaica’s second leg, the once great but often injured Yohan Blake—but also by the cold-blooded gold medal performance by the U.S. women just half an hour earlier.
With long jump gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta passing to 400-meter silver medalist Allyson Felix, who passed to 100-meter national champion English Gardner and then to 100- and 200-meter Olympic medalist Tori Bowie, the U.S. ran 41.01 seconds from the disadvantageous curve of lane one (because they had qualified in Thursday night’s surreal solo time trial after being interfered with in the qualifying round). Still the U.S’s time was the second fastest in history, behind the U.S. world record of 40.82 seconds, set at the London Olympics. Jamaica was a distance second in the race, .35 seconds behind, an eternity in such a short, urgent race.
“Executed and trusted each other,” said English Gardner, who won the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials but did not medal in an individual race in Rio. The U.S. victory gave Felix, 30, five gold medals, more than any other woman in Olympic track and field history. She will run Saturday night on the U.S. 4x400-meter relay, with a chance to win her ninth overall medal, tying Merlene Ottey of Jamaica for the all-time record.
The U.S. women’s race with a model of relay efficiency and speed. Bartoletta, who along with Felix was a member of the world record team in London, ripped though the tight first turn and gave Felix a lead, which seemed to extend despite running against 100- and 200-meter gold medalist Elaine Thompson of Jamaica. Gardner torched the second turn and handed Bowie a solid lead. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was unable to gain on Bowie. “Just ran in my lane, through the line,” said Bowie, who leaves Rio with a full set of medals from her first Games.
Thirty minutes later, Jamaica came out to properly send off Bolt. He had won the 100 meters easily over Gatlin in 9.81 seconds and on Thursday night the 200 in 19.78 over Andre de Grasse of Canada. Both were by far his slowest winning Olympic times. He had been injured in July and never regained full fitness. Still, he had one message to his teammates. “Listen guys,” he said. “Just get the baton around. We’re all adults here. We’re all experienced.”
Asafa Powell, the 33-year-old onetime world record holder in the 100m who has experienced a doping suspension (which was reduced by CAS from 18 months to six) and numerous injuries, ran leadoff and then passed to Blake, the 100-meter silver medalist from London, whose speed had also been dented by injuries. Nickel Ashmeade ran the second turn before giving the stick to Bolt. “We played it safe,” said Powell. “We know once we get the baton around, it’s safe in Usain’s hands.”
Bolt waited at the top of the stretch in lane four, towering over the other anchor men. The U.S. had stayed even with Jamaica for three legs, Rodgers to Gatlin to Gay. Japan was almost even, as well. “They’re so solid on their baton passes,” said Bolt. Then Bolt took the baton, with 21-year-old U.S. sprinter Trayvon Bromell to his left and Asuka (Aska) Cambridge of Japan to his left. Bromell was running with a balky left Achilles tendon; after finishing last in the 100-meter final, he said he was going home to have surgery. Cambridge has a lifetime best of 10.10 seconds; Bolt’s is 9.58.
Hence, all that stood between Bolt and his ninth Olympic gold medal was a gimpy American and a slow Japanese. “As soon as I got my hand on the stick, I knew I had it won,” said Bolt. “There was no one on that leg that could outrun me to the finish line.”
Bolt looked more majestic than in either of his individual races. His 100 was workmanlike, if dominant. His 200 was a grind, the effort of gifted, yet tired and undertrained sprinter. Here he gave track and field a lasting Olympic portrait before walking away from the Games. (He has said that he will run the 100 meters at the 2017 world championships next summer in London). “I’m gonna miss the crowd, I’m gonna miss the energy,” said Bolt. “I’m gonna miss the competition. But it’s been a great career. I’m happy.”
The U.S quartet was happy, too, just to have a medal. The foursome walked and jogged on a victory lap and war nearly all the way back around to the finish line when Gatlin tapped Gay on the shoulder. Gay recalled, “He said, `My man, don’t celebrate no more.”
Gatlin said, “We were almost all the way around, then I heard the intercom say there’s a revision. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that red DQ flashing.”
The offending act occurred on the first pass from Rodgers to Gatlin, which was completed before Gatlin actually entered the passing zone, a violation of Rule 170.7. U.S. runners argued that the pass was clean. “I never let go of the stick until I knew we were inside the zone,” said Rodgers. “I ran up on Justin, so I knew it was early. That’s why I held on.”
Said Gatlin: “It felt good. I didn’t think it was premature. I watched the replay and I thought it was a good pass.”
U.S. officials protested the disqualification, but at 1:34 a.m. in Rio, the protest was rejected. In an email to SI.com, IAAF spokesperson Anna Legnani said that she received an email from the secretary of the Jury of Appeals which said, “All protests and appeals rejected. All results stand. Sleep well.''
Canada ascended to the bronze medal spot.
The U.S. recent reign of relay terror began when Darvis (Doc) Patton and Gay botched the anchor handoff in Beijing and Bolt skated away to his third gold of those games. A year later at the worlds in Berlin, the U.S. botched a handoff in the qualifying round. Two years after that in Daegu, Patton stumbled coming in off the third leg and never got the baton to anchor Walter Dix. The U.S. managed to get around to a silver in London, but that medal was stripped when Gay received a doping suspension. At the 2013 worlds, the U.S. was leading when Mookie Salaam failed to execute the anchor pass to Gatlin, who was denied a shot at holding off Bolt. And last summer Gay and Rodgers passed out of the final exchange.
“I don’t get it,” said Gay. “I’m sorry, you couldn’t have told me in a million years that we would make a stick exchange before the zone. That’s elementary.” This from a sprinter with his fingerprints all over previous crime scenes.
It was equally strange that U.S. relay coach Dennis Mitchell left a relay anchor to a 21-year-old with promise and a very bad wheel. Bromell, who finished second to Gatlin at the U.S. Olympic Trials, said the decision was his. “Of course, my Achilles bothered me in the 100 and it bothered me today,” said Bromell. “But I can’t just give up on my guys. I could have gone home, gave up. But that’s not in my blood.”
As for running against Bolt, Bromell said, “I’ll never be scared of no man.”
It is a brave and honorable statement, and just the kind of thing a sprinter would say. Clearly Mitchell felt that a 21-year-old on one leg was America’s best shot against Usain Bolt, which is a very troubling commentary on U.S. sprinting.
Bolt was asked in the post-race press conference why, the U.S. keeps messing up relays. “Pressure,'' he said. Powell added, “They're too worried about beating us.''
A wounded American team is not the image that will linger from the 19th night of August in the year 2016 in a South American city bent to its breaking point by the mass of the Olympics. One image will linger: A tall man taking flight, knees pumping, shoulders rising and falling in the night, a movement that is something past running. A last Olympic race, a last Olympic gold.
And a parting message. “I’m sorry guys,” said Usain Bolt. “This is the last one.” A sport is poorer that he’s leaving, richer that he was here.