In the second part of our 2017 year-end review series, statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best relay performances of the year.
For the last two Olympic cycles this event has belonged to the Bolt-powered Jamaican team which finished first on all occasions in three Olympics and four World Championships with the margin to second place averaging an astounding 0.71! But nothing in sport is forever — the IAAF World Championships London 2017 final illustrated that graphically on the anchor leg when Bolt’s hamstring cramped and sent him crashing to the ground when trying to make up a three-metre deficit.
The shock of seeing this fall of an icon in his last ever race made most onlookers miss what happened at the front. Which was unfortunate because in spite of Jamaica´s absence the stride-for-stride duel down the homestretch between the hosts and the USA produced performances for the history books: Winners Great Britain with 37.47 became the No 3 nation of all-time and the 37.52 for silver medallists USA was the fastest ever non-winning time.
With Jamaica out and Canada missing their ace André De Grasse the bronze went to Japan half a second behind the top-2 but also a couple of metres ahead of everybody else. What is quite remarkable about the Japanese team is that it did not include two of their three individual semi-finalists!
At the IAAF World Relays two years ago the USA had won in a blazing national record of 37.38 and they retained that title this year despite running a second slower. That 38.43 was sufficient for a win was to a large extent due to botched exchanges by the other main contenders Jamaica, Canada and Great Britain.
This event has been almost monopolised by the US all through the history of the World Championships, as they finished first in all finals but 1983 and 1991. Checking the sum of the team member’s season’s bests in 2017 made another US win look imminent: USA averaged 44.26 vs 44.99 for Botswana and 45.23 for Trinidad and Tobago.
This impression was strengthened after the heats where the USA was fastest despite resting their top-2 while assumed main opponents Jamaica – that had finished next to the USA at the World Relays in April – and Botswana were eliminated. Jamaica, who missed out by just 0.10 must really regret having rested their two individual finalists!
That relays are something much more intricate than the arithmetic sum of the team members was once more proven in the London final. The USA followed their traditional strategy of going for a clear lead on the first leg but this time they were unable to keep that advantage. However, with 43.70-runner Fred Kerley getting the baton first in the final exchange another gold medal seemed all but guaranteed.
But Kerley was tired from competing continuously since January while Trinidad andTobago’s Lalonde Gordon was full of energy and inspiration. He shadowed Kerley all the way and with just some 25 metres to go he managed – in a move reminiscent of Kriss Akabusi’s in Tokyo 1991 – to edge slightly ahead to claim an upset win.
Great Britain was the only other team to dip under 3:00 although Belgium –with three Borlee brothers in the team– and Spain, with a new national record, came close.
Other relay events
With the World Relays returning to the calendar after a break in the Olympic year there was global action also in the 4×200 and the 4x800m. In Nassau both those events quickly became tight head-to-head battles between two teams.
In the 4x200m it was Canada vs the USA. As the two teams were quite evenly matched in pure sprinting capacity the decisive factor probably was that three quarters of the Canadian team had been part of a DNF in the 4x100m the previous day and thus had extra hunger for success.
Of course having Olympic medalist André De Grasse in the team and avoiding significant problems in all three exchanges also helped to get the win in 1:19.42 with a margin of almost half a second to the USA team.
In the 4x800m Kenya and the USA left the other teams behind already on the first lap of the first leg and at the first changeover they had already put almost a second of daylight between themselves and the third team. On the second leg Kipyegon Bett with his 1:46.73 gave the Kenyan team a clear lead at halfway.
However, Casimir Loxsom through a 52.00 first lap on the third leg put the USA back in contact and from then on the two teams kept together. Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy – confident in his finishing sprint – just bided his time until some 50 metres remained before changing gears and overtaking Olympic fifth placer Ferguson Rotich to claim the title for the USA.
It’s all even at the top of the women’s 4x100m relay. Before this year’s IAAF World Championships London 2017, the USA and Jamaica were tied with three wins each in the previous six major championships. The season started at the IAAF World Relays with a strong US team not finishing their race and Jamaica in second place in an unimpressive 42.95 clocking. Fastest in Nassau was Germany in 42.84 and while this was not a huge surprise –Germany has several good performances and fast times outside major championships– their latest medal in this event is still the bronze from 2009.
In London it was hosts Great Britain, who offered the biggest challenge against United States. The Americans were fastest in the heats clocking a 41.84 world leader in the heats, but Great Britain was just 0.09 seconds behind in 41.93 season’s best. In the final United States was only 0.02 seconds faster, but still a clear winner in 41.82 world lead with Great Britain in silver medal position clocking 42.12. Jamaica was a close third in 42.19 with Germany finishing in 42.36 for fourth. The 41.82 winning time was the slowest in a major championships since 2009, when Jamaica won in 42.06 at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.
Switzerland clocked a 42.50 national record in the heats and finished in fifth place in the final in just fractionally slower 42.51. China was disqualified in the heats in London, but the Su Minxiang team won the National Games in September in 42.59, the fastest Chinese time since 1997.
The United States won 10 out of the 12 last major titles, indoors and outdoors combined, since Beijing 2008 in this event. Looking at the individual runners’ results, there was only one favourite for the women’s 4x400m crown in 2017. United States started well with a clear win and an early 3:24.36 world lead at the IAAF World Relays in Nassau in April. In London at the IAAF World Championships, USA came up with a strong heat, fastest of all teams in 3:21.66 world leading time.
Jamaica was the second fastest in the heats with 3:23.64, but their final ended after the first curve of the second leg runner Anneisha McLaughlin-Whilby suffering an injury. The USA was absolutely superior in the final. Anchor Phyllis Francis did not have to look behind her back taking the gold home in 3:19.02, fastest time in the world since the 2012 London Olympics (3:16.87), and 0.04 seconds faster than their winning time in Rio Olympics 2016.
Finishing in second place, Great Britain grabbed only their second silver medal in the history of this event at the World Championships after the first one which came in Moscow 2013. Great Britain has won one world title indoors in Istanbul 2012, but none outdoors. Poland was a close third in 3:25.41 and the bronze medal was the country’s first medal in this event outdoors, and first globally after their silver from the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.
Other relay events
Jamaica was fastest in the 4x200m distance at the IAAF World Relays, setting a national record with a 1:29.04 win. Germany was second in 1:30.68 and United States third clocking 1:30.87. Multinational Tumbleweed Track Club, anchored by Dafne Schippers (NED), set the world lead of 1:28.77 at the Florida Relays in Gainesville in April, with University of Washington just 0.01 seconds behind.
In Nassau, the USA was the 4x800m winner in 8:16.36, a world lead for the team anchored by Charlene Lipsey. Belarus was second in 8:20.07 and Australia third in 8:21.08.
Mirko Jalava (women’s events) and A. Lennart Julin (men’s events) for the IAAF