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When the baton weighs a ton
It is the sound no relay runner wants to hear, a sound so soft and unassuming it might barely be noticed in the stands but nonetheless reverberates, over and over, down on the track. Ping. Ping. Ping.
Four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, the US men's and women's 4x100m relay teams dropped batons - and heard the pings of them hitting the track - during a disastrous performance that prompted the chief executive of USA Track & Field to promise a "comprehensive review" of the entire relay program.
Four years earlier in Athens, shoddy baton passing by the American men had allowed a British relay team to pull off an upset, while the United States women were disqualified after a botched exchange. There have been similar troubles at the world championships. Now, as US track teams, again loaded with blazing feet, prepare for the London Games, the biggest concern has more to do with their hands. "It's awful when it doesn't come together, " veteran sprinter Allyson Felix said this spring.
On the surface, batons do not seem particularly calamitous. They are about 12 inches long, smoothly cylindrical, free from adornments, and they go by an elementary nickname : the stick. Yet batons inspire complex appraisals from those who have heard that ping and cast a frightful glance backward to find years of hope tumbling down the track.
One athlete compared the challenge of the baton exchange to two ships passing in the night (but if the ocean were the size of a phone booth), while another likened it to a harried traveller's attempt to catch up with (and hold hands with) his wife on a moving walkway in a crowded airport. Neither one was joking.
The US relays coach Jon Drummond invoked the familiar setup of an SAT math problem in describing the difficulties of a successful pass. "If you have two cars on the freeway, " Drummond said, holding his fingers up to demonstrate, "and one is driving 28 miles an hour and another is driving 19 miles an hour, at some point there is going to be a wreck, right?"
Drummond slammed the "cars" - his fists - together. "Unless you have something to kind of stop it from happening, " he said. "That's what the baton represents. "
That stark reality is perhaps why there seems to be little love between track athletes and batons. Rather, there seems to be a general wariness from sprinters regarding batons. Runners are cautious. Measured. Fearful.
"You have to respect them, " Angelo Taylor, a veteran American relay runner, said of batons. Carmelita Jeter, expected to be part of the women's 4x100 team in London, agreed. "You can't assume anything in the relay, " she said. "Anything - anything - can happen. "
Their trepidation is understandable. In a sport rooted in individuality, the relay suddenly - awkwardly -- demands collaboration. Runners who spend their entire lives trying to ruin the dreams of their competitors suddenly must share them. Success and blame become a joint venture.
It is strange and uncomfortable, and that makes it more embarrassing when things do not go right. Yes, the Jamaican and British teams have had drops too but it is not the same.
The history for US relay teams is unmatched. Since 1932, US women have won as many Olympic gold medals in the 4x100 relay (nine) as all other countries combined. Since 1920, the US men's relay team has won gold at 15 of the 21 Olympics held, with one of the six misses coming because of the 1980 US boycott of the Moscow Games.
Because of that tradition and because of the massive disappointment that enveloped the teams four years ago, the obvious question from millions of casual fans watching on television this summer will be this: How can something that seems so easy really be so hard?
Ask a group of athletes why Olympic baton passing is so difficult, and you will hear a variety of theories. The one aspect athletes cited almost universally in recent interviews was chemistry.
"A lot of other countries are always practicing together, " Felix, who was part of the 4x400m relay team that won a gold medal in Beijing, said. "We get the relay camps before the Games and meets like this, but you never know if the same people are going to be there at the end of the year. "
In most cases, that is by necessity. Unlike countries like Italy and Poland, which are known for having more dedicated relay-team training, the US has a slew of contenders for medals in the individual sprints. That means there is continual turnover as athletes qualify for any given competition in any given year, not to mention that the individual sprints always take priority over the relays. It is a reality often bemoaned by national team coaches. Athletes have personal coaches and trainers, and those people are responsible for making certain that the runners are primed for their individual events. Only after those events are over do the runners who have come through uninjured fully turn their attention to the relays.
Asking the athletes to do otherwise would be counterproductive, Felix said. No one wants to have a deep discussion on passing technique or to practice baton exchanges a day before the heats for individual events begin. "Everyone has their own schedules, their own agendas, " Felix said. "These people that are on the relay team with us, they're also our competitors. To get together with someone and disrupt their agenda? That's hard. "
The notion that the relays are, in many ways, just an afterthought is a philosophical concern, but there is also a more bureaucratic problem that afflicts the relays, according to those involved in the process. "There's the Olympic Games, and then there's Olympic gaming, " said Brooks Johnson, a former US team coach. The politics of which athletes will run in the relays can often play havoc with a team's composition and success, he added.
Johnson refused to comment on specific instances, but several are well known by runners. In 1996, Carl Lewis - probably the best US sprinter - did not run in the relays after he refused to attend a pre-Olympics training camp. One theory, which was voiced by the Canadian star Donovan Bailey, was that Lewis, then 35, did not want to risk sullying his personal reputation by running the anchor leg and losing. "Carl is a better businessman than that, " Bailey said. The US went home with the silver.
Eight years later, Lewis was the one criticizing US track officials for what he perceived as odd relay selections after Felix was left off the women's 4x100 team. "It was a mistake, " he said. Then, in 2008, questions were raised about which leg of the relay Tyson Gay should have run after he was part of a mishandled pass.
Clearly, creating a relay team is rarely as simple as taking the four fastest runners and putting them together. "That's what people don't realize, " Johnson said. "Olympic gaming is more decisive than whatever happens at the actual Olympic Games. "
Whatever a person's feeling on the intangible aspect of the baton pass, there is no disputing its complexity from a physiological perspective. There are tense exchanges in the 4x400 relay, but the time pressure in the longer race is not as pressing;only in the 4x100 does the pass come in a crucible, leaving that race on an island in terms of the precise skills needed for success.
First, some basics. The standard approach is for each team's lead-off runner to start with the baton in his or her right hand. That runner stays on the inside of the lane nearing the second runner, who waits until the leadoff runner approaches and then starts sprinting inside a 10m fly zone. At the end of the fly zone, a 20m passing zone begins. The exchange must be made inside this area.
The lead-off runner places the baton in the second runner's left hand. The second runner runs that leg, hugging the outside of the lane, and follows the same sequence in passing to the third runner's right hand. The third runner then passes to the anchor's left hand - this was where Gay and Darvis Patton failed to connect in Beijing - and, if all has gone right, everyone watches the last runner sprint to the finish.
In other words, there are three exchanges in every race, and each exchange must take place inside a 20m area. If a runner goes outside his or her lane, or a pass takes place outside the area, the team is disqualified. "That's why we do a lot of math, " Jeter said. "It's a math problem, and we have to get it right. "
The math arises a few days before each race. On every track's surface, there is a diamond or triangle indicating the top of the fly zone, where a waiting runner should stand. Teams then work from that mark backward, literally counting out steps, in an attempt to estimate the spot where the action of the passing sequence should begin.
Before Jeter took the baton from Bianca Knight at the Penn Relays, for example, the runners had plotted out a day earlier the exact point on the track that Knight needed to reach before Jeter would take off into the fly zone, marking the spot with a piece of tape. Typically, Jeter said, two Olympic-calibre female runners will start by pacing off 25 steps back from the triangle;they then run a test pass to see if the movements match up smoothly.
If the pass happens too early in the zone, before the outgoing runner has a chance to reach top speed, the pair can move the piece of tape away from the fly zone and delay the exchange a few steps. If the pass happens too late, putting the outgoing runner perilously close to the end of the 20-meter zone, then the piece of tape is moved the other direction.
The spacing is critical because using a silent pass - as most teams do in a loud stadium - involves having the receiving runner put a hand back to accept the baton after a predetermined number of steps. If the incoming runner is not there (or gets there too soon), disaster ensues.
"You never get the magic number on the first try, " Jeter said. "And you want to do it as close to the race as possible. Doing it weeks early doesn't help anyone because you don't know how someone will be running weeks later. "
Where is the absolute best spot for the exchange to take place? Dr. Aki Salo, a senior lecturer in sport biomechanics at the University of Bath in England, said his studies had shown that teams should strive to make the hand-off 15m into the 20m passing zone. Even later would be better, Salo said, because then the outgoing runner could reach a higher speed. But leaving five metres of room in case of an awkward pass is prudent.
A fluid exchange can make the difference between a successful race and disappointment. On a good pass, the baton spends about 1. 8 seconds in the zone, said Salo, who has worked with Britain's track team for more than a decade. A bad pass might have the baton there for 2. 0 seconds. With three exchanges in each relay, poor passing can cost a team half a second or more - an eternity in a sport where finishes are often decided by hundredths of a second.
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