Fresh approach to track and field presentation relay long overdue
By Joe Battaglia
NASSAU, Bahamas – As Chris Brown and his teammates walked out from behind the curtained tunnel and into Thomas A. Robinson Stadium, the crowd erupted at a decibel level that, by many local accounts, had never been louder at a sporting event on this island.
The inaugural IAAF World Relays proved especially triumphant for the host nation, which made its Olympic bones in track and field, and the relays in particular, beginning with the historic victory by the "Golden Girls" in the 4x100m at the 2000 Sydney Games and continuing with the "Golden Knights" 4x400m win in London in 2012.
For veteran sprinter Chris Brown, who has spent the majority of his 16-year career running predominantly in stadiums favoring the competition, getting to compete on a blue Mondo track, with hundreds of Bahamian flags waving and a Junkanoo band, bringing the Caribbean beat on the north bend was a dream come true.
"I never pictured the Bahamas hosting a major event like this," Brown said. "I came from a grassroots program. Running on a grass track was all I knew. I love the Bahamians. It was a great experience running in front of a Bahamian crowd and I told my teammates that I'm happy to be a part and along for this ride."
By all counts, these World Relays were a resounding success. The IAAF did well in gathering all the major relay running nations together for a competition, and finding a nation eager to host and insure the prosperity of the event – the Bahamian government, through its sports ministry, bankrolled the $1.4 million in prize money – against the backdrop of a magnificent tropical setting.
The meet also delivered the exciting times that track junkies live for. The Kenyan men and women set world records in winning the 4x1500m relays, in 14:22.22 and 16:33.58 respectively, and Jamaica won the men's 4x200m in a world-record 1:18.63. Each team claimed a $50,000 bonus check on top of the $50,000 winner's prize for their records. In addition, 37 national records were run.
But most importantly, the IAAF showed a willingness to think outside the box.
By his own admission, IAAF President Lamine Diack acknowledged that the sport has become stagnant in its presentation over the last two generations and that a fresh approach was long overdue. Rather than chalk that up to being a problem for the next IAAF president to solve when his term is up in 2015 – most likely Britain's Sebastian Coe or Ukraine's Sergei Bubka – Diack and his administration did something about it.
"Over the last 40 years, we have seen the decline of national matches and the rise of international meetings," Diack explained. "The move from the amateur to the professional era has seen the creation of World Championships and, more recently, the Diamond League. Therefore, we hope that the IAAF World Relays, our latest exciting competition, will appeal to athletics fans and athletes alike. The relays have traditionally provided the dramatic climax to major championships, with teams battling to get their baton across the finish line. Now, with this new presentation, the relays can take center stage."
And the athletes all but yelled "It's about time!"
For most, the opportunity to contest non-traditional events was a welcome experience.
Take American Wallace Spearmon, for example. Being predominantly a 200m guy, he has faced a yearly choice as to how to structure his training and approach to the season based on which relay pool he wanted to land in, be it the 4x100m or the 4x400m. To actually run a relay in his wheelhouse had Spearmon thanking the IAAF profusely.
"It's never been consistent for me," Spearmon said, before the U.S. was DQ'd for a baton pass outside the zone. "I've been trying to have a 4x2 at the Penn Relays since 2005. I have been having people sign papers saying they would run. That's never any good. I've been talking to other athletes and they've said they do it and when the time comes you can't find them."
Jamaica's Yohan Blake, the 2011 100m world champion but a far better 200m runner, couldn't help but wonder about what it would be like to run his first 4x200m, saying, "If I’m running 19.26 over the distance with a block start, imagine what I can do with a relay start?"
What he did was put together a rolling start anchor split of 19-flat to bring the team of Nickel Ashmeade, Warren Weir, and Jermaine Brown home in 1:18.63, taking .05 seconds off the 20-year-old mark set by the Santa Monica Track Club, which was one of Carl Lewis' last two standing world records. The sprint medley is all he holds on to.
"It was really good," Blake said. "We have good speed endurance as a team. We worked really well together and I tried to stay relaxed in the latter part of the race because that is where the lactic starts to build up. I just tried to keep focused, keep my stride length and take it from there."
Taken away from Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross and her contemporaries is the 4x400's prime spot as the closer to major championships, in favor of the 4x100m. She hopes more performances like the USA's victory in 3:21.69, sparked by 50.20 splits by her and Natasha Hastings, will help change things back.
"I’m still a little salty about it," she said. "I think the 4x400m has traditionally closed out the meets and should still close the meet. There definitely has been a changing of the guard. No one can deny the impact that Usain and Jamaica and our country have had in the 4x100m, so I do understand why they made that change. I am a fan of the sport as well and I love to see great competition. But I am hoping they will switch it back soon."
Middle distance athletes, like Leo Manzano, also found unique opportunities. Manzano believes running the 4x1500m relay here could be a gateway for the U.S. to begin learning how to work as a team in open races at the major championships.
"It may have been something we have been lacking in the past, where I know Kenya has worked together in a lot of their championship races to help each other out," he said, before anchoring the 4x1500m to a runner-up finish in an American-record 14:40.80. "So maybe this can be a starting point for us so that in the future we could compete as a unit in the World Championships or Olympics."
Like all new events, the World Relays were not perfect.
The principal knock on the meet was the absence of some of the biggest stars in the sport, including its brightest, Jamaica's Usain Bolt. His decision to open his season at the Golden Spike Meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic, rather than on this Caribbean island where his path to international greatness began in 2002 at the Carifta Games can only be viewed as an inexcusable failure to meet his obligation as a global ambassador for track and field.
"I chatted with Usain when he won in Beijing," Diack recalled. "I told him, 'Now that you are a part of history, your job is not only to win and make money but you have a responsibility to the whole sport.' He was very conscious of that. He said, 'I understand that, Mr. President, and I will do my best.' I also spoke with his coach [Glen Mills] and said that he has a responsibility as the man who made this boy. I saw him in 2002 and said that I expected him to be a fantastic athlete.
"It is the role of all our top athletes to promote the sport. We also know that he is not here. But we have a full stadium — two days. We have a World Championship. We have a lot of athletes who will be competing — very good athletes, who will be competing against each other. I can’t focus on the one who is not there."
Even though the U.S. won the Golden Baton trophy for most points scored in the meet, one might contend that the American athlete turnout left a lot to be desired. For a nation attempting to position itself to host the outdoor World Championships in 2019, having the likes of 100m world-leader Justin Gatlin, multiple Olympic medalist Allyson Felix, 2011 1500m world champion Jenny Simpson, 2013 1500m Worlds silver medalist Matthew Centrowitz, and two-time U.S. indoor 1500m champion Mary Cain here would have spoken volumes about the level of U.S. commitment. For some, the lack of star power, however explainable, might be interpreted as the opposite, although USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel does not believe so.
"Any time we field a team of athletes with the Team USA uniform, we want the strongest team possible," he said. "The roster for the first IAAF World Relays is a nice cross-section of athletes that puts a fine point on our depth. We have both our Olympic medalists from the women’s 400m, the world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 400m, two members of the world record-holding women’s 4x100m relay team and the fourth-place Olympic men’s 800m runner.
"This is a first-year event at a time of year when athletes have to make decisions about their schedule. In our case, some athletes were coming off injury, some were competing in IAAF Diamond League events in Asia, and we even had one top athlete taking her final high school exams. Overall, we view our squad here as a great starting point for what promises to be a great and increasingly popular IAAF event."
Other questions surrounded there being only four teams in the women's 4x1500m, won by Kenya in a world-record 16:33.58, and why sprint and distance medley relays, shuttle hurdles, team field events or even mixed-gender relays weren't included on the program to broaden the event's appeal.
Diack indicated that he didn’t expect to see mixed-gender relays on the IAAF program anytime soon. Spearmon said he too had heard clamors for the shuttle hurdles but said outside the U.S. fielding four quality hurdlers for a world championship meet would be difficult, an obvious obstacle to its inclusion.
Nevertheless, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
"The Bahamas hosted a brilliant event," DeeDee Trotter said. "This is unlike anything we’ve experienced as far as a relays or track and field meet, so to come here and to be in this environment, to be in this atmosphere and to feel nothing but love. It’s a whole different entertainment value to bring to track and field I can’t tell you how exciting it was.
"I don't want to go home."