BEIJING (AP) — For the world’s best sprinters, passing the baton in the 4×400 relay is about as easy as rolling out of bed in the morning.
Picking a winner in that race used to be easy, too.
An awkward exchange between U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix and her teammate, Francena McCorory, played into a razor-thin loss to Jamaica at world championships Sunday. The American women fell by 0.31 seconds and settled for a second straight silver at the worlds after winning the Olympic and world championship titles five straight times.
“It’s hard, this one,” Felix said. “But it’s motivation for next year.”
Next year is the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and from the U.S. perspective, the planning can’t start soon enough.
Yes, the United States won the most medals for the sixth straight time at the worlds, dating to 2005. But it did so with only 18. That’s seven fewer than the last worlds, 11 fewer than the London Olympics and the lowest total at the worlds since 2003, when the Americans won 16 — after four were taken away for doping.
“When you’re No. 1, it’s always a steeper pinnacle,” USA Track and Field president Stephanie Hightower said. “And staying on top is always a lot harder than when you’ve got to work your way to the top.”
The U.S. team certainly had some high notes. Exhibit A on Sunday: A come-from-behind anchor leg by LaShawn Merritt in the men’s 4×400 that closed out the nine-day meet. Though the women are on a losing streak, the men have finished first in the long relay at every worlds since 1993; a handful of those wins have since been vacated because of doping.
“It was important for us to end this right,” Merritt said. “Everyone on this team gave their best. But giving your best doesn’t always mean you’re going to end up with a gold medal.”
The second-place finish a few minutes earlier by Felix and Co. ensured the United States would not win the most gold medals at this meet. Thanks to the relay upset, and a gentleman named Usain Bolt, Jamaica tied Kenya for the lead with seven golds, one more than the Americans.
The Kenyans picked up their last gold from Asbel Kiprop in the 1,500 meters. Other winners Sunday included Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana in the 5,000 and Mare Dibaba in the marathon, Kathrina Molitor of Germany in the javelin and Derek Drouin of Canada in the high jump.
Felix walked away with a gold in the 400 and a pair of silvers — one in each relay — to push her career total to 12 medals at worlds.
There was no shame losing to Jamaica’s speedsters in the 4×100.
Losing to Jamaica in the 4×400 is a different story.
And the fact that part of the problem was a baton exchange is a real head-scratcher. It’s nowhere near as technical a handoff as in the short relay, where the timing has to be just right and there’s virtually no room for error. It’s such a non-issue in the long race that when McCorory was asked what happened on the exchange, her response was: “Something happened with our exchange?”
When McCorory reached back with her left hand to receive the baton from Felix for the anchor leg, she grabbed air. That forced McCorory to pause ever-so-slightly to grab the stick on the second swipe. The whole thing took less than a second, but the race was decided by 0.31.
“Obviously, you don’t want that to happen,” Felix said. “You need every inch.”
Maybe things would have been different had Felix been running last, instead of third. Second-guessing has become a gold-medal event for the U.S. relay team.
On Saturday, the men got disqualified from the 4×100 for an exchange out of the passing zone, marking the eighth time since 1995 at the worlds or Olympics they had either been disqualified or failed to finish.
“We’re not going to be perfect every time,” Hightower said. “But for the most part, we had some spectacular performances.”
Leading the way was Ashton Eaton, who on Sunday picked up the gold medal, along with a $100,000 world-record bonus check, for his performance in the decathlon.
And Merritt’s gold in the relay goes with a silver in the 400 and gives him the American men’s record with 11 world championship medals.
Still, the U.S. finished with six fewer medals and one fewer gold than at the last big meet in Beijing — the 2008 Olympics.
That performance triggered a top-to-bottom review of the operation called “Project 30” — a nod to the goal of winning 30 medals at the London Olympics. There don’t appear to be any such plans in the works after this performance, though clearly this is a time for looking forward, not back.
“There’s a lot of intensity and a lot of pressure and a lot of high expectations for our athletes,” Hightower said. “I’m confident they’ll rise to the occasion when it’s necessary.”