Relay flops blame it on failure to connect

Half of all the teams in the men's and women's sprint events failed to get the baton round at the Olympics. Mike Rowbottom listens to the excuses in Beijing

Jamaica's domination of the Olympic sprinting events culminated in another world record performance here last night in the men's sprint relay which saw Asafa Powell take over the central role from his team-mate Usain Bolt by stopping the trackside clock at 37.10sec, three-tenths of a second faster than the US quartet recorded at the 1993 World Championships.

It was a stupendous demonstration of expertise on an evening when five more nations failed to negotiate the sprint relay course, including the British women, who would have had a good chance of bronze or even silver had they got round.

Of the 32 teams who came here for the sprint relays, exactly half – eight from the men's event, eight from the women's – were disqualified for incorrect or non-existent handovers of the baton. If this event had a motto, it would have to be: only connect.

All the usual excuses and explanations have been uttered by subdued athletes here within the last couple of days. Tyson Gay, of the United States, closed his hand over the baton and it "wasn't there". Jamaica's Kerron Stewart, involved in the fumbled exchange with Sherone Simpson which cost Jamaica the chance of completing a set of sprint relay golds to go with what they had already obtained in the individual sprints, expressed it thus : "I did what I was supposed to do. She did what she was supposed to do. But it wasn't done."

For Britain, whose men had also failed to pass the baton correctly the previous day, the failure of Montell Douglas and Emily Freeman to connect on the second changeover was particularly unfortunate, given that a medal earned by them would have brought UK Athletics up to its target of five medals which was designated before the Games by their Lottery funding body, UK Sport.

Since the 2004 Athens Olympics – where Britain's men won the 4x100m gold – a sum of half a million pounds has been spent on trying to optimise the performance of Team GB's sprint relay teams. The men's team are currently under the direction of a specialist coach in Michael Khmel, a Russian brought in after one relay debacle too many at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

The women's sprint team are coached by Roger Walters. What will he make of the explanations offered by the two women involved in the latest baton mishap? "I called 'hand' to Emily and our timing was out," Douglas said. "The Jamaicans were going out and we were all so close together and I've never seen anything like it. We were clashing and colliding I felt like we are all bashing each other. I called for 'hand' and when I went to put it in I knew I wasn't going to get there and I shouted 'Stop Emily, Stop'. I could see the end of the box but by then it was too late because she couldn't hear me." Freeman, pale and wan as a figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, added: "I think we lost a medal there and I'm partly to blame."

As far as the British teams are concerned, much emphasis has been placed in recent years on getting all the relay runners together for regular practice. But there is no legislating for misunderstanding, or the kind of coltish nervousness which appeared to have sent 21-year-old Craig Pickering off and running before he should have done in the first round of the men's heat which meant he was out of his legal ground by the time the desperately lunging figure of his team-mate Marlon Devonish could reach him.

No such indecision dogged the Jamaicans here last night as each team member slapped the baton firmly into an awaiting hand all the way round. For once, Bolt didn't have to sprint to the line, merely jogging on towards it and pointing down the track as his friend Powell took the glory leg.

How it's meant to happen

A sprint relay team needs to execute three successful exchanges of the baton – each within a 20-metre exchange zone – or face disqualification. Passers must remain in their lanes after the pass to avoid blocking other runners. The agreed method for exchanging is for the incoming runner to shout "hand" to the waiting athlete, who extends his or her palm upwards behind them to take the baton.

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