Just because the sports car is red doesn’t mean it’s gonna go fast

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Along with death and taxes, we experience other certainties.

LIfe also brings us American DQs — and other gruesome weirdnesses — in high-profile relays.

Why this is so remains an enduring mystery. Well, not really. It’s institutional and cultural. But as Sunday night’s close to the fourth edition of the IAAF World Relays proved yet again, it is very much so — so much that after two more DQs and a loss in the men’s 4x1 the happiest person in the U.S. track and field scene, as the jest in the press room went, in a nod to the politics that chronically beset American relays, was assuredly Carl Lewis.

Good news:

It’s May. The world championships aren’t until the fall, in Doha, Qatar, and all of 2019 is but a prelude pointing toward the big show, Tokyo and 2020. It’s eminently possible this can — could, should — get sorted out by this fall and, presumably, by next summer. Ronnie Baker isn’t here. Christian Coleman isn’t here. 

Bad news:

When it comes to the United States in the relays, as literally episode upon episode has made plain, Groundhog Day can happen anytime.

Justyna Swiety-Ersetic of Poland at the line of the women’s 4x4 ahead of Courtney Okolo of the United States // KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Justyna Swiety-Ersetic of Poland at the line of the women’s 4x4 ahead of Courtney Okolo of the United States // KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

These Relays made clear, moreover, that the lofty station the United States traditionally has occupied — atop the world — is no more. France won a race. Brazil. Poland. Trinidad and Tobago.

Thus, mindful it is ever Groundhog Day — is it time to worry?

There were victories Sunday, to be sure: the U.S. women’s 4x1, in 43.27; men’s 4x2, in an emphatic 1:20.12, and 4x4 mixed, in 3:16.43.

Even here, though, evidence for the Carl Lewis talk. It’s not that Carl is going to himself put on a singlet and make like Carl of the 1980s or 1990s, when he was winning Olympic sprint medals. No. Carl is now assistant coach at his alma mater, at Houston, and Houston is an ascending college track and field power, and one of the things Carl understands — and Carl has never been shy about speaking out — is that college sprint relays are better than these pro relays because they run them year round, and there’s an argument, a very good argument, that the United States should simply send to the biggest meets the NCAA relay champs (assuming, of course, the runners are Americans).

Back to that U.S. women’s 4x1 Sunday night. The winning time, once more: 43.27. In the prelims, the U.S. women ran 42.51.


At the Pac-12 championships in Tucson, Arizona, the Southern Cal women — in the prelims — ran a world-lead 42.44.

Big-picture emphasis: no matter how you slice the math, the college women are faster.

Back to Yokohama, where there was also an inexplicable loss — in the women’s 4x4, a race the Americans historically dominate, Poland winning in 3:27.49 when Jessica Beard could manage only a 53.3-second third leg for the United States, the Americans finishing in 3:27.65.

And then:

In the women’s 4x2, after crossing the line third, the Americans were DQ’d for a clunky pass — that is, a zone violation. 

Track and field geeks, let that sink in — a zone violation in a 4x2. Not a 4x1. A 4x2. Seriously.

In the men’s 4x4, another race the U.S. traditionally has owned, the Americans crossed second, run down by Trinidad and Tobago, and then got DQ’d, anyway, for stepping on a lane line.

Which brings us to the men’s 4x1.

Brazil won, in a world-leading 38.05. The Americans took second, in 38.07. Britain got third, in 38.15.

That Brazil — Brazil — won underscores the obvious: continuity, consistency and practice can, you know, bring results. 

U.S. issue No. 1: you have four No. 1 stud guys running the race — Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, Isiah Young, Noah Lyles. Is that the best formula?

No. 2: Lyles is a 200 guy. To his credit, he ran a sensational — fantastic — leg Sunday night. But even he said after the race the 200 is his main thing. Fair question: he’s running the 100 instead of the 200 because — why?

No. 3: If you want them both in the race, Rodgers and Gatlin, based on nearly 10 years of experience, is a no-brainer. But what order? One to two, as they ran Sunday? Or two to three, with, say, Rodgers in the three? If Rodgers doesn’t lead off, who should? 

No. 4: Gatlin to Young didn’t quite work Sunday night. The complicated backstage story here is that the two of them for years were both with Dennis Mitchell. Let’s not rehash how that ended abruptly.

No. 5: in Saturday’s prelims, Cameron Burrell, who while in college at Houston helped the Cougars win the 4x1 in 2017 and 2018 and himself won the open 100 in 2018, ran the No. 4 slot, not Lyles. Did the Americans go slower in the prelims than in the finals? Yes, 38.34. Bottom-line, if you are Carl Lewis, with Burrell running the anchor, did the Americans win the race? Yes. With Burrell anchoring last summer for the U.S. 4x1 team at the Athletics World Cup in London, did the Americans win? Yes, in 38.42, with Jamaica second. 

You see where this is going, right?

As a wise soul connected to the American program put it late Sunday: just because the sports car is red doesn’t mean it’s gonna go fast. 

But count on this: the American public, when it starts paying attention to the relays, like in Tokyo in 2020, is going to expect results. That red sports car had best get tinkered with. Now would be better than later.