Athletics: US relay squad in comedy of errors

Pat Butcher sees the Americans again embarrassed by a baton change
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The Independent Online
American relay teams seem to have three options where the baton is concerned. They either drop it amid a welter of self- recrimination, they muddle through it and break the world record, or, extremely, they throw it at their opponent, as in the case of Mary Slaney, when as the 14-year-old "Little Mary" Decker, she felt she had been barged by a Russian athlete.

Well, to cut a long story short, the United States went straight for the first option yesterday in the opening heat of the first round of the men's 4 x 100m. But they did add a slight modification to their increasingly traditional incompetence.

Presumably saving Jon Drummond for the final, the reserve lead-off, Brian Lewis, was going perfectly well until the second-leg runner, the individual bronze medallist Tim Montgomery, saw him coming.

For reasons best known to himself and the US sprint relay coach, Montgomery chose to set off before the appointed time. When he saw he was going to stray outside the area allocated for the handover, he completed the comedy of errors by stopping, turning round and crashing into Lewis.

You could almost hear the Canadian laughter from the bowels of the stadium, where Donovan Bailey and his pals were waiting to win the second heat, because they have come up with a fourth option in the last couple of years. The Canadian sprint relay squad has beaten the Americans to the gold in both the 1995 World Championships and, even worse, in the Atlanta Olympics last year.

As you can imagine, the Americans don't like this very much. All the more so since Bailey has a habit of reminding them. So, when new US sprint star Maurice Greene beat Bailey to the individual 100m gold last Sunday, there was an opportunity for some payback.

Bailey set the border skirmish rolling with: "We'll still win the relay." This was a counter to the God-fearing Greene, who had earlier contented himself with a bit of self-aggrandising along the lines of: "Someone had to put US sprinting back on the map. I decided that it should be me."

John Smith, an urbane Californian when he is trying to keep in check his verbose training charges, Marie-Jo Perec, Ato Boldon and Greene, chipped in with: "There's some folks north of the border been saying some stuff," which he left hanging ominously in the air.

But the repartee has been cut short by the Americans' performance. The anchor man Greene dropped to the track and pounded it with his fists, as Ghana, Sweden and Ukraine qualified. He then had to watch with mounting frustration five minutes later as the Canadians showed how it should be done.

The Canadians almost compounded the felony in their semi-final later on. There was a dreadful change-over between Bruny Surin and Bailey. The former individual champion had to pull out all the stops to get up to third behind the Nigerian team, which won in 37.94.

The Ghanaians ran a national record of 38.12 in the other semi-final. Britain were close enough with 38.25 to suggest that not only will it be a great final, but the British have a chance of another medal.