Relay oops -- U.S. does it again, twice


NASSAU, Bahamas — A Bahamian Junkanoo band rocked and rolled in the end zone. The crowd went jetplane-loud when the local heroes, the Bahamas men’s 4x400 team, went around the track. Two world records went down in about 30 minutes. It was a great night for track and field at the first edition of the IAAF World Relays.

It was also a rough night for the U.S. team, one that ought to raise, yet again, the same tiresome, frustrating questions:

How can Americans be so good at thumbs on a cellphone but manage to be so bad at passing a stick around the track in a relay? Just to pick one team, how can the Jamaicans manage to, you know, get around the track so well and so fast?

Three of the four U.S. 4x1500 racers seeking a quiet moment after the race

There were, to be sure, bright spots for the United States:

The U.S. women won the 4x100 in 41.88 seconds. Sanya Richards-Ross, in a return to the bright lights of track and field after medical woes with her toes, ran a devastating second lap in the heats of the 4x400, opening up a 1.4-second lead on the Jamaicans, to power the U.S. women to victory in their heat. In the men’s 4x400 heats, London 2012 triple jump champion Christian Taylor ran a fantastic anchor leg to hold off Jamaica’s Rusheen McDonald by eight-hundredths of a second.

Yet in a bewildering case of déjà vu all over again, and again, in incidents that awakened the echoes of bungled handoffs and bad passes past, the U.S. team managed not once but twice to screw it up, first in the women’s 4x1500 relay — which seems almost unimaginable — and then in the men’s 4x200.

In the women’s 4x1500, the Kenyans took down the world record by more than 30 seconds. That’s a wow.

The mark had been 17:05.72, set just a few days ago in Nairobi. Everyone knew coming in that the record was soft, and anticipation was high for a duel between the Kenyans and Americans.

Indeed, Heather Kampf, who would run first for the United States, sent out a tweet before the race that said, “Running with a baton is like carrying around the hearts of your teammates while racing. Can’t wait!”

It all seemed to be going so well. And then — boom, Katie Mackey, running the second leg, was on the ground.

“I just did what we did in practice,” Mackey said afterward. “Looked back at Heather,” who was coming in for the pass, “and moved up a little bit to the inside, and next thing I know — the Australian is right in front of me, so I kind of tripped and went down.

“But my first thought was, it is track, anything can happen, you have to get up and try to get back into the race. I think I did it. We love the Bahamas!”

The trip-and-fall cost Mackey at least four seconds. Four seconds meant 25 meters, at least. There went the duel.

The Kenyans crushed the field — by the end, Helen Obiri would lap Romania’s Lenuta Ptronela Simiuc — and the world record, finishing in 16:33.58.

The Americans got up and back into it, beating the old record, too, finishing in an American-record 16.55.33.

“We felt the music throughout the race,” from the marching band, “and we felt the support of the crowd,” Obiri said.

“We are excited to have broken the world record for the second time this year,” Mercy Cherono, who ran the opening leg, said. “I am so happy and proud for my team and the time we ran today. It was important to win for our country.”

About a half-hour later, up came the men’s 4x2. American Curtis Mitchell, passing to Ameer Webb, Man 2 to Man 3, couldn’t swing it cleanly. They wobbled together past the exchange zone and that was that.

Webb, Mitchell said afterward, “had a big stop,” adding, “We almost crashed. I was nearly over him. It was just poor execution.”

Not that it would have mattered much to the result — the Jamaicans, anchored by Yohan Blake, blazed to a world-record 1:18.63, breaking the old mark, set 20 years ago, in April 1994, by five-hundredths of a second.

Unofficially, Blake’s split, and this may be the best we are ever going to do in knowing what he ran on the blue track here: 19-flat. Keep in mind, too, that the 200 world record, held by Bolt, is 19.19, set at the 2009 Berlin world championships.

Of course, Blake had a flying start Saturday night and Bolt had to start from the blocks, so the two are a little bit apples and oranges.

The Jamaican 1:18.63 is particularly notable because it means Carl Lewis' name is now gone from another line in the record books. You can still find the Santa Monica Track Club on the line that says sprint medley, 1985, 3:10.76 -- Lewis led that one off.

It’s notable, too, because, of course, Usain Bolt did not race. He is not here. And, still, the Jamaicans killed it.

The Americans, scoreboard said, would have finished third.

So meaningless.

Saint Kitts and Nevis ended up taking second; France was elevated to third.

“It shows Jamaica’s depth in sprints is spectacular,” Nickel Ashmeade, who ran leadoff, said. “No offense to anyone but there is no one like Jamaica. We have depth all around and keep getting better all the time.”

Bolt has his “lightning” pose. Blake does a “beast” thing. He did the beast thing a lot after the race but tends to speak quietly.

He said, “We just worried about getting the stick around the track. We know we have the speed to take care of everything else.”

This is where the Jamaicans are so different than the Americans.

It’s all mindset.

The Jamaicans genuinely seem to be having fun when they are racing.

Why, in the relays, do the Americans too often seem to be running as if thinking too much? Like they are executing some middle-management strategy?

“We ended up changing the relay last-minute,” Maurice Mitchell, who ran the first leg, said. “But, you know, it is what it is.”

Why a last-minute change, he was asked? “I’m not really sure. It’s coach’s decision.”

Asked to elaborate, Mitchell said, “I’m not really, fully — really know about what was going on. I just tried to do my job on the first leg.”

All of this, the communication issues and confidence woes they can engender, are well-documented in the 2009 Project 30 report — turn to Page 20.

In anticipation of just this sort of thing happening again, however, a few intrepid journalists on Friday did some math:

Since 2001, there have been 10 major championships — Olympics or worlds. The U.S. 4x1 men, as a for instance, have been DQ’d or DNF’d in five. One was for retroactive doping, 2001, so if you want to be picky, the number of field-of-play disasters is four of 10.

Listen to the way the Jamaicans and Americans talked Saturday night, after they had run, about the way each prepared for their races:

Warren Weir, second leg, Jamaican 4x2, half-jokingly: “We stayed home, ate ice cream and played video games.” Then, for real: “No, seriously, we all did our separate preparations because we are in different camps. We just did some baton exchanges on this track to test it out.”

Ashmeade: “We came out here yesterday and did a set of baton passes. That’s all.”

Now, Tianna Bartoletta, leadoff on the winning U.S. women’s 4x1 team:

“I would say we tried to really build trust among one another and communication because there are a lot of different variables between practice and race day.

“We really worked on being loud with our communication, either saying, ‘Wait,’ or, ‘Go,’ or, ‘Stick,’ and being really consistent with that so that under any circumstance or any situation we could get the baton around the track.”

It worked for them, right?