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Men's 4 x 100 Meter Relay, Track and Field, Barcelona 1992

posted July 27, 2008

The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 marked the first time that NBA basketball players were allowed to play in the Olympics. The team that the USA sent to Barcelona was the greatest concentration of basketball talent ever assembled on a single squad. It included some of the best players in NBA history, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It was dubbed 'The Dream Team,' and this nickname was not an exaggeration. They averaged 117.3 points a game, winning their games by an average of 43.8 points. They won the gold medal without being seriously challenged.

But a second Dream Team also competed in Barcelona, this one on the track. The American men's 4 x 100 meter relay team also featured the greatest gathering of athletes in that event's history, and their accomplishment was just as impressive.

To understand how great a team this was, it's first necessary to know something about the event itself. For the benefit of anyone reading this who does not know the ins and outs of the 4 x 100, I will take a moment to introduce the basics.

The 4 x 100 relay is run in a single lap around the standard 400 meter track. The object is to get the 'baton,' an 11 1/2 inch aluminum tube weighing less than 2 ounces, around the track as quickly as possible. The baton must be passed from runner to runner in 20 meter exchange zones that are made up of the last 10 meters of one 100 meter leg and the first 10 meters of the next. The runners for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th (or 'anchor') leg can use up to 10 meters before the exchange zone to get a running start before receiving the baton. These runners also mark a 'go line' on the track with tape. During the race they will bend over and look backwards, and when the incoming runner reaches the go line, that's when they start their own acceleration in preparation for the baton exchange. Obviously, pure running speed is not enough for success in a 4 x 100 relay. The timing of the baton exchanges is also crucial. If one runner 'runs up' on the next, reaching him before his acceleration is complete, precious time is lost. In the perfect relay, each baton receiver is up to full speed by the time the baton exchange is made. While perfect baton exchanges are rare, good ones are essential for success at the Olympics, no matter how fast the four runners may be as individuals. On the other hand, the greater the advantage a team has in pure speed, the less perfect the exchanges need to be to result in victory.

Now, each leg of the 4 x 100 has unique characteristics, and specific runners can be more suited for certain legs than for others. With that in mind, I'll move on to a look at the individual legs of the 4 x 100, and the men who ran each leg in Barcelona.


The facts:
The lead-off leg of the 4 x 100 relay is run on one of the two big curves on the 400 meter oval track. Sprinters who compete only in the 100 meters run exclusively in a straight line, including for the start. Those who run the 200 meters, on the other hand, always start their races on a curve. Such runners understand the technique for accelerating from zero to high speed while going around that big bend. So the ideal person for the lead-off leg of a 4 x 100 would have the top-end speed of a great 100 meter runner, but also the refined turn-starting technique of a 200 meter runner.

The man:
The lead-off runner for the Barcelona 4 x 100 team was Mike Marsh. Mike had won the 200 meter race at the Barcelona Games, and in the semifinals had missed tying the world record by one hundredth of a second (there was slight head wind during the final, so he was unable to run that race quite as fast). Obviously Mike was, at that time, one of the best 200 meter runners ever. But he was also an accomplished 100 meter runner, with a lifetime best in that event of 9.93 seconds. While he hadn't qualified for the 100 meters on the Barcelona team, four years later at the Atlanta Games he not only competed in both events, he made both finals, though he failed to medal in either. So clearly Mike Marsh had the ideal combination of 100 and 200 meter speed, skills and experience for a 4 x 100 lead-off runner, and in Barcelona he was at the absolute peak of his life. At that moment he was the perfect man for the job.


The facts:
Run almost entirely on the back straightaway, the 2nd leg of the 4 x 100 requires pure speed. The perfect candidate would be the second fastest 100 meter runner ever, perhaps a former world record holder. With two baton exchanges to negotiate, the ideal 2nd leg runner would also have lots of experience running that leg.

The man:
The 2nd leg at Barcelona was run by Leroy Burrell. In 1991 he had set a new world record for 100 meters at 9.90. A few months later that record was broken, but in that race Leroy also improved his own lifetime best to 9.88 while coming in second. A year later this was still the second fastest 100 meter time ever recorded. In addition, as a member of both the USA team and the famous Santa Monica Track Club, Leroy had run 2nd leg on countless relays, including several teams that set new world records in the event. In 1992 at Barcelona, Leroy Burrell was the perfect man for the job of 2nd leg in the 4 x 100.


The facts:
The 3rd leg, like the lead-off, is run on a curve. Unlike the lead-off, the 3rd leg runner begins the leg already running, so 200 meter starting experience is not important. Instead, the ideal 3rd leg runner is one who simply has a knack for being able to run at full speed around a curve. Some people just have this natural ability that can be cultivated and refined, and the ideal 3rd leg runner would be someone who was both one of the fastest 100 meter runners of all time, and who also possessed unusual ability and skill at running curves full speed.

The man:
In 1992, the four fastest 100 meter times ever recorded were 9.86, 9.88, 9.90, and 9.91. Leroy Burrell, of course, had the middle two of those times. The 9.91 had been run in 1991 by Dennis Mitchell, in the same race where Burrell had run his personal best. Dennis was the third fastest 100 meter man of all time in 1992, and he was also one of those unusual runners who just feel at home running a curve. He had demonstrated this special skill many times, including on several world record 4 x 100 teams. In fact, he is still regarded to this day as the best 3rd leg runner of all time. In 1992, Dennis Mitchell was the perfect man to run the 3rd leg of the Barcelona 4 x 100.


The facts:
The anchor person of a 4 x 100 is normally the best pure speed-burner you have. This man only has to worry about the baton at the very beginning. Once it is in his grasp, he simply turns on the afterburners and sails down the final straightaway at top speed to the finish line. The current 100 meter world record holder, who also has lots of experience as a relay anchor, would be the perfect 4 x 100 anchor man.

The man:
In 1992, the 100 meter world record holder was Carl Lewis, the greatest track and field athlete of all time. Carl was the only man ever to repeat as Olympic 100 meter champion (1984 and 1988); the winner of four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, equaling the feat of the immortal Jesse Owens in 1936; a four time Olympic champion in the long jump (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996); and, as a member of both Team USA and the Santa Monica Track Club, the anchor man on countless relays, including several world record teams. Carl had failed to qualify for the Barcelona Olympic team in the 100 meters due to having a virus during the Olympic trials, but he had still finished sixth in the finals, and since he was coming to Barcelona to compete in the long jump, he was named the alternate for the 4 x 100 relay. When Mark Witherspoon, the third American 100 meter qualifier along with Burrell and Mitchell, blew out an Achilles tendon in one of the heats at Barcelona, Carl Lewis was called on to take his place on the relay. Still regarded in 1992 as the world's fastest man when he was healthy, Carl had set the then current 100 meter world record at the World Championships in Tokyo the previous year, which of course was also the race where Burrell and Mitchell ran their lifetime bests. A notorious slow starter during most of his sprint career, Carl was able to make up for his starts simply by having the fastest top-end speed of any runner ever. He had an extra gear that even other great sprinters didn't have. In the 100 meter final at Los Angeles in 1984, he was last out of the blocks, and it was a race for about 60 meters. At that point, Carl's extra gear kicked in, and suddenly it was as if all the other runners had been switched into slow motion. Carl blew past the rest of the field like they were barely moving, and won the race easily. It was the most awesome performance in a 100 meter race I've ever seen. But the most impressive 100 meter performance was that Tokyo 100 meter final, when 30 year old Carl Lewis finally got a really great start and ran 9.86, breaking the existing world record by an amazing .04 seconds, at the time the largest lowering of the 100 meter world record since the dawn of electronic timing. Carl Lewis in 1992 might have lost half a step compared to 1984, but he still had the fastest top-end speed in the world, and was considered the greatest relay anchor ever. He was the perfect anchor for the Barcelona 4 x 100 relay.

As you can see, this was truly a Dream Team in every respect. Three of the four also had experience with each other: Burrell, Mitchell and Lewis had run the same legs the year before in Tokyo, where they had set a new world record of 37.50 seconds that still stood a year later. With Mike Marsh on lead-off, the Barcelona team was a degree better than the one from Tokyo, and they would not be satisfied with just gold. They also wanted to set another new world record. They were the greatest 4 x 100 team ever assembled, and they would be running in front of the whole world. They wanted to run a race that all those countless millions of people watching around the globe would never forget.

In the semis, they had used go lines 26 feet back from their starting positions, a fairly safe distance. For the finals, they set the go lines at 31 feet. It was somewhat risky, but necessary if the world record was to be challenged.

I sat in front of the TV that day waiting for the race to begin, fully aware that I might be about to witness one of the great track moments of all time. As the cameras scanned around to each individual man of the US team as they waited for the start, I think my sense of anticipation must have been similar to theirs. It was incredibly exciting. Would they be able to break the world record? Would they drop the baton trying and not even win? In a 4 x 100 race anything is possible, and that's what makes it so exciting under any circumstances. The two 4 x 100s (men and women) are always among my favorite and most anticipated events in any Olympics. With the greatest 4 x 100 team ever out on the track waiting for the gun, the excitement level was even higher than usual.

The starter gave the verbal 'get ready' signal, and the eight lead-off men all assumed their starting stances. Marsh was in lane four, the lane randomly assigned to the USA team. This is it, I thought, the excitement ratcheting up yet another notch. After about two seconds that seemed far longer, the gun sounded.

Mike Marsh exploded out of the blocks and accelerated quickly. Halfway through the turn he had already noticeably closed the starting stagger on the man outside of him. He continued to outrun the rest of the field until he reached the first passing zone. Burrell had started a bit slowly and Marsh ran up on him just slightly before they made the baton exchange, but the hand-off was clean and little time was lost. Not a great exchange, but a good one.

Leroy Burrell, having received the baton, got up to full speed within a few quick steps and flew down the backstretch, closing on all four runners outside of him and distancing himself from the three to his inside. At last he approached Mitchell at the end of the straightway. Dennis also got off a little slowly and wasn't fully accelerated when the baton was passed, but there was almost no run up this time. The exchange was clean and fast, and Dennis was off. Though slightly better than the first, it was still not a great exchange, but it was a very good one.

Dennis Mitchell burned up the turn like a man possessed, running noticeably faster than the other 3rd leg runners, looking almost like a slot car taking a turn in the security of its slot, not worrying at all about his position in the curved lane, just pouring on the speed. As he neared the end of the curve, Lewis took off, speeding up quickly as Mitchell approached, and taking the baton from him without breaking stride, not up to full speed but with only a slight run up. Once again, not a great pass, but a good one.

Carl Lewis accelerated down the home stretch, strain showing on his face as he reached all the way down for every last ounce of speed he could summon. Faster and faster he moved, distancing himself further and further from the rest of the anchors, looking more like the 23 year old from the Los Angeles Games who had been so awesome in the 100 meter final than the 31 year old he was now. He stretched himself forward in a slight lean as he reached the finish line. It was an overwhelming victory, but what about the time?

The clock on the TV screen stopped at 37.40, and 'NEW WR' appeared over it. Carl Lewis raised his arms as he looked up at the stadium scoreboard, and then his face broke into an expression of overwhelmingly delighted triumph, and he yelled that triumph to the sky. They had not only won the gold medal, they had broken the world record by a full tenth of a second.

"OH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!" I shouted, almost as happy as the men who were embracing each other on my TV screen, jumping up and down with the joy of a double dream completely fulfilled. They had done exactly what they had set out to do, and I was overjoyed as well, having seen what I had hoped to see: the greatest 4 x 100 team ever assembled running the greatest 4 x 100 meter race ever run.

The next year at the World Championships, a US team of John Drummond, Andre Cason, Dennis Mitchell and Leroy Burrell (in the respective four legs) tied the Barcelona world record in the semifinals. In the finals, they ran 37.48, the third fastest 4 x 100 of all time. Fifteen years later, the Barcelona race, the two 1993 World Championship races, and the 1991 World Championship final of 37.50 are still the four fastest 4 x 100 relays ever run. Although I knew at the time I was watching something very special, the endurance of the Barcelona world record is somewhat surprising even to me. The world record in the 100 meters is now down to 9.72, but still no team has yet beaten, or since 1993 even come close to, the time run by the 1992 Barcelona 4 x 100 Dream Team. It was truly a race and a team performance for the ages, and will probably always be my favorite Olympic Track and Field moment.

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