By Dave Ungrady
The U.S. track and field team provided its share of pleasant surprises at the recent Beijing Olympics. Among them were LaShawn Merritt’s win in the men’s 400m, Stephanie Brown Trafton’s gold in the women’s discus and Dawn Harper’s victory in the 100m hurdles.
But the failures of the men’s and women’s 4 x 100m relay teams clouded those and other proud performances by the Americans in Beijing.
Both teams dropped batons in qualifying heats. Aside from the boycotted Moscow Games in 1980, it was the first time a U.S. 4x100 relay team did not advance to the final at an Olympic Games since 1912 in Stockholm, when the U.S. men dropped the baton in a semifinal race.
The first disappointment came from the U.S. men. They started strong, earning a slim lead over Trinidad and Tobago as third leg Darvis Patton extended his baton-clenching right hand to the back-reaching left hand of anchor Tyson Gay. As Gay's hand grasped air, the stick fell to track and bounced on the rain-slickened surface. The crowd gasped while Patton slowed to a stunned walk and bent over with his hands on his knees, pondering the predicament.
As Gay jogged down the track with no sense of purpose, his Olympics of futility was cemented. A triple gold medal hope in the sprints, Gay returned home with no podium appearances.
The men's relay team last failed to reach the Olympic final in 1988.
Gay handled the disaster with class. "I take full blame for it," he said in Beijing. "I kind of feel I let them down."
Patton, who dropped a baton in a relay race for the first time, shared the blame. "That's Tyson Gay," he said in Beijing. "He's a humble guy, but I know it's my job to get the guy the baton and I didn't do that."
While in the media mixed zone near the track after the race, Patton called his home in Dallas, Tex. to relay the unsettling news to his wife, Crystal, who had organized a party to watch the race on the delayed U.S. television broadcast. “I told her to cancel the party,” Patton said recently by phone. “She got emotional and I got emotional. Once I got off the phone with her, I walked a lap and realized it’s not the end of the world. I’ll have another day.”
Earlier, Patton was more troubled. “I felt disbelief,” says Patton, a gold medalist with the 4 x 100m team at the 2004 Athens Olympics as well as the 2003 and 2007 world championships. “I couldn’t believe what happened. I love the relay. I tell (my teammates) just put your hand back there, even if it’s between your legs, I’ll get [the baton] there. My next thought was we were going to catch hell from the average track fan.”
Patton clarified the reason he takes the blame. “The incoming runner should not let go of the stick unless the outgoing runner has it, period,” he said. “I thought he had it, but I should not have let it go.”
The women had a comfortable lead heading into the final exchange, but anchor Lauryn Williams and Torri Edwards flubbed the pass. It fell to the ground as Edwards yelled and covered her face with her hands. Williams retrieved the baton and finished the race in last place.
The women missed the final for the first time since 1948. "If people want to assess the blame to me, that's OK," Williams said in Beijing. " I can take whatever it is that people are going to dish out. We had good chemistry. The hand was back there. She was there. I don't know what happened."
Williams has been involved in two faulty Olympic exchanges that cost the U.S. team medals. In 2004, she misconnected with Marion Jones in the final and the Americans were disqualified for making the exchange outside the 20-meter handoff zone.
Williams offered further reflection about what happened in Beijing in recent e-mail. “Something was just off,” she writes. “From team members not being able to attend the opening ceremonies to not having real bib numbers, the disorganization when it came to the little things, the energy wasn't correct.”
Williams added that U.S. officials advised the relay team to stay at the relay camp in Dalan and miss the opening ceremonies. “Those who made the team for the first time should have been able to go to the opening ceremonies,” she wrote. “In general it is the attitude of team members that once they have been on an [Olympic] team they don’t really want to stand in opening ceremonies.”
The men’s and women’s relay team initially wore the bibs they used for their individual events because they were never given the official relay bibs. The men were forced to change the bibs as they were walking out to the track to take their positions after officials noticed they were wearing the wrong bibs.
“It didn’t affect us, but it was just embarrassing,” says Patton. “We were ready to go.
We had to get out of our sweats and have two helpers put them on each person.”
Patton said he and his teammates did not have time to warn the women’s team about the problem. “We went in to the call room and saw others with their country [name] on the bib and the clerk took out some blank [bibs] and a marker and wrote on it,” Williams wrote.
Williams has had to live with an unwelcome legacy. “I am recognized as "the girl, the Olympic runner who messed up the relay" and that certainly stings and is a constant reminder of the failure and how many people were watching and counting on us,” she writes.
One person watching closely was U.S. coach Brooks Johnson, who resigned in early October as the head of the team’s high performance division. Johnson was the relays coach since 2003 and said the resignation had nothing to do with the team’s relay woes at the Games and more to do with avoiding a conflict of interest while coaching foreign athletes.
U.S. sprinters hope for better fortunes in the future.
“You have to at some point refer to all negative events as life as water under the bridge and move on,” Williams writes. “That is the attitude I have taken and for the most part it works.”
Williams, 25, and Patton, 31, both hope to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.
“What I don’t want out of this is my one debacle defining my career,” says Patton, who finished eighth in his first 100-meter final in Beijing. “It’s sports. It’s going to happen. But you have to move on. You can’t let it linger. I don’t see it happening again.”
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