Carl Lewis called it a “clown show.” Michael Johnson said it was “embarrassing and ridiculous.” And they were right.
The U.S. men’s 4 x 100 relay team failed even to qualify for the final at the Tokyo Games on Thursday after trailing in a distant sixth in their heat. The result means that, in an event they once dominated, Team USA has not even medalled in five consecutive Olympics.
Ostensibly, the team’s failure was blamed on a bungled baton exchange between Fred Kerley and Ronnie Baker at the second to third leg handoff, with Baker needing three attempts to grab the baton, but the truth is the team never really looked much of a threat. The first leg was run by Trayvon Bromell, who arrived in Tokyo as the fastest man in the world but failed even to qualify for the 100m final. After a disappointing display on Thursday, he admitted: “I didn’t do my job.”
Watching the race from his home in Houston was Carl Lewis, whose nine Olympic gold medals include two from the relay. Lewis, now 60, anchored the American team as they set world records at both the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and in Barcelona eight years later.
Never one to mince his words, America’s greatest Olympian took to Twitter after the race: “The USA team did everything wrong in the men’s relay. The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership.
“It was a total embarrassment, and completely unacceptable for a USA team to look worse than the AAU kids I saw.”
In a subsequent interview with USA Today, Lewis picked apart the performance. He asked why, for example, Baker, a straight-line 100m specialist, had been asked to run the third leg, around the bend. “I’ve never seen Ronnie Baker run a turn in my life,” he said. “Go back and watch the third leg. Look at him. He looks like he’s running on ice because he’s never run a turn.”
“It’s totally avoidable,” he added. “And America is sitting there rooting for the United States and then they have this clown show. I can’t take it anymore... It is not hard to do the relay.”
“This was a football coach taking a team to the Super Bowl and losing 99-0 because they were completely ill-prepared.”
It’s easy, of course, to talk about some sort of U.S. relay “curse.” The American men last claimed the 4 x 100 title at the 2000 Sydney Games, anchored by Maurice Greene. The closest they have come since then was a second-place finish to Usain Bolt’s Jamaican quartet in 2012, only to have to return their silver medals after Tyson Gay failed a drugs test.
But it’s clear that the runners were pretty much all in the wrong slots in Tokyo. Apart from Baker being asked to run the turn, Bromell had not run the opening leg of a relay since 2015. Kerley had never run No. 2 at a major championships—and as the fastest American in the 100m in Tokyo, he should have been anchoring the team.
Talking to reporters in the mixed zone after the race, Baker admitted the team had “not much” practice in the run-up. Cravon Gillespie, who was asked to anchor the team despite not even qualifying for the 100m in Tokyo, told NBC Sports the team didn’t even get together until two days ago. “We definitely have to get more practice in,” he said.
It was that lack of preparation that irked another great American runner, the four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson, who tweeted: “This isn’t rocket science.”
“Trying to get two people running full speed to exchange a baton within a 20 meter zone requires practice! Especially when you haven’t won this event since Sydney 2000 due to drops and zone violations! Embarrassing and ridiculous.”
The relay quartet should not take all the blame after what is looking like a disastrous Games on the track for Team USA. There were upsets in the 100 and 200 finals and, on Thursday, in the 110m hurdles, where the hot favorite Grant Holloway, who seemed to begin his gold-medal celebration before the race was run, was beaten to the line by Hansle Parchment of Jamaica.
And in the later 400m final, another event traditionally dominated by American runners—including Johnson—Team USA once again finished outside the medals as the elegant Bahamian Steven Gardiner cruised to victory.
This could end up being the first Olympic Games the United States has ever competed in with no American man bringing home a gold from the track.