In the otherwise individual sport known as athletics, relays are the one exception. And don’t they just keep on giving.

The actual running of the relays is exciting enough. Getting the baton around in the 4×100 is always a delicate balance between risk and reward. Push the envelope on the changes at the risk of dropping the baton or overrunning the zone. Then there’s the physical side of the 4×4 as after the first three bends it’s a high-speed battle for the best racing line in what essentially becomes a middle-distance sprint.

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Then there’s always the pre-race entertainment in watching squad egos try to sublimate themselves to the one team goal. Who runs the heats? Who makes way for the finals? Does your fastest/best sprinter run the back-straight or the anchor leg in the 4×1. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics the bickering over such matters in the US men’s sprint relay lasted from the eve of the competition through to the declaration of the team for the final (and well beyond as well, I’d have reckoned).

Through it all, though, it seemed there were two certainties. First, the baton must complete the full journey be it one lap or four; second, a disqualification – the dreaded DQ – was the end of things.

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The baton rule was most harshly illustrated in the (in)famous men’s 4×400 at the 1985 World Cup in Canberra. An ill-timed, for some, well-timed, for others, shove at the final changeover caused chaos and provoked no fewer than five protests and counter-protests. The only team to escape the carnage was Africa who held a clear lead.

The US anchor, Michael Franks, ran down Africa’s Innocent Egbunike. As the American came past in the final strides the African baton struck his leg and was dislodged. The whole protest thing was too complicated, but guess who did get DQ-ed. Right: Africa. Because, as IAAF president Primo Nebiolo put it: “In the relay, the baton must cross the line.”

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So, rule one stands immutable. Judging by events this past weekend in the Bahamas, however, it appears rule two now has an exception clause. A DQ is the end of things – except at the World Relay championships.

Again, the men’s 4×400 (it had already happened in earlier events but I turned it on just in time to catch the 4×4 heats). Again, a US team. The second-leg runner had been third past the 200 but took the lead soon after. Officials had lined the third leg runners up – correctly – in the order at the 200 – whereupon the US third runner moved himself to the inside of the line as his incoming teammate, now well ahead, came to the changeover.

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No can do. Across the finish line it was USA first, Japan second Germany third. Obviously, though, the USA was going to be disqualified. They were.

Seemingly out of Olympic qualifying contention, at least as far as directly from the World Relays was concerned. But no. Apparently a disqualification – or ‘dnf’ – at the world relays was not the end of things at all as it normally would be. The USA could not go to the final but would be able to run the repechage heats where the first two in each of three races also qualifying for Paris24.

So, the second relay certainty turns out to be not a sure thing after all. Not at the world relays, anyway. Muck up on day one and it’s not so much “don’t come tomorrow” as “never mind, tomorrow is another day.” The explanation appears to be that where past editions of the relays have qualified only eight teams to the next championships this time 14 of the 16 teams to make up the Paris fields were being qualified from the Bahamas. That being the case, you got your second chance at the relays which sorta, kinda, maybe made some sense.

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But what kind of sense does it make of World Athletics’ second-tier championships. First there was the world race walking cup which this year seemed to be more about qualifying teams for the marathon mixed relay at Paris24 than an individual and team event with its own intrinsic merit. Now, the world relays have been seen to be all about qualifying for the Olympics than retaining any value (other than the not-insignificant one of prizemoney) of their own.


Still, it’s reassuring to know that dropping the baton, changeover zone infringements or disqualification are no longer fatal in relays. Like the Norwegian Blue in the Dead Parrot Sketch, it is not that it “is no more”, “has ceased to be”, is “bereft of life, it rests in peace”, or “is an ex-parrot”.

No, it’s just “resting”, “stunned”, or “pining for the fjords.”

Twitcher’s footnote: Speaking of Norway, the women’s 4×400 qualified for Paris. Reportedly, it will be the first time a Norwegian team has run an Olympic relay since the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games. Some Norwegian Blues are thriving!


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