Friday, 22 August 2008


The 2008 Olympic Alfred E Newman 'What Me Worry?' gold medal is presented to:
Bubba Thornton, of the US track and field 'coaching' staff. Asked during their pre-Olympic training why Tyson Gay was not working out with the relay team on their passes, Bubba opined thusly: 'There will be plenty of time for that in Beijing'.

Or not, as the case might have been. The double-drop disqualifications in their heats of both the men's and women's 4x100 relay teams should not have caught anyone by surprise. Earlier in the week, when I heard the Jamaican coach worrying that his sprinters hadn't been practising together, I said to Kirsten, who could care less, 'he ought to talk to the Americans'.

Because far from being a shot out of the blue, bad baton skills are a tradition among American sprinters. Just to go back to the last Olympics, the women's sprint replay team again flubbed the passing, and didn't medal, while the men performed a skilled imitation of the Three Stooges handling a stick marked TNT with a burning fuse, and lost the gold medal to Britain. When you consider that the fastest British runner had a slower personal best than the slowest American,
that took some doing.

This is a disgrace, and it's the same at every major competition. It is a problem, because it's not like this is a college team, where you practice together all the time; these guys are professionals who have their own programmes. But at some point along the line, someone at US Track and Field has to wake up and realise that turning the world's fastest runners into a sideshow act from Coleman brothers circus is not in the best Olympic interests of the team or indeed the runners themselves.

Perhaps they could hire Calvin Murphy, one of America's top baton twirlers in his pre NBA days, to help out. Perhaps they could practice with electric cattle prods. Perhaps the could hire my high school track coach, a French teacher who'd learned all he knew about track from books. I ran track my senior year, since the school had given up lacrosse and I had given up on baseball (big strike zone, slow swing). Ed Emery tested my heart beat and determined I should run distance. A few days of watching me lug my 185 pounds around on my short legs, and I'd moved to the 440, where I could chug at top speed as long as possible. Amazingly, I also ran the second leg on the 4x220 relay, and here is where Mr Emery's study proved its worth.

If you get the baton pass right, you not only accomplish the obvious, and avoid disqualification, but you can start your leg already moving at top speed. Watch the US sprinters who turn, take the baton, turn, gather themselves up, and start running. Proper technique has you looking straight ahead, getting up to speed, and taking the baton in the sequence of pumping your hands, so you waste no movement. For a slow starting runner like me, this was a built-in advantage.

Has no one ever explained it to the US Olympic team? Can't they see the advantage? Haven't they run film of some of the great relay teams, of Bob Hayes' 8.6 in Tokyo, or even the Brits' flawless handovers in Athens. One of the first rules of sport is DON'T BEAT YOURSELF, but in track and field, the US had a noble tradition of doing just that. Remember too, in the Olympics there never is 'always next year'.

By the way, back in 1968, my best time in the 440, running on grass, was 54.0 (and I finished second in that race). Mark Fitzpatrick, who would win the state AAU the next year, and I finished 1-2 in 8 of our 9 meets, and I actually elbowed him and won once. My last year of college I ran a 58 second quarter in football cleats, with helmet and shoulder pads on, and when I was 27 I lost a bet at Parliament Hill, saying I could still beat one minute and running it in 61 seconds.
Don't ask me to even consider one lap today. But if US Track and Field want to hire me as a relay coach, I'm ready.

UPDATE: This is what makes the Olympics the couldn't script this stuff! My thanks to 'Team GBR' for botching the final handoff, as Craig Pickering, for some reason running the anchor leg, overran his changeover box before getting the baton from Marlon Devonish.
What makes this better is that Team GB has apparently invested more than £500,000 in their relay squads (buying custom batons? bicycles built for four?) and brought in an Australian coach,
Michael Khmel, to transform the Olympic gold medallists into USA-style butterfingers. I hearby withdraw my suggestion US relay teams be forced the watch the Brits in action, but I also hereby extend my offer to coach relays to Team GBR for the 2012 Olympics. They won't even have to pay relocation expenses.

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