expert view

Ailis McSweeney: Relay 101... here's what you can look forward to on the track tonight

A tight control on adrenaline and nerves is essential to get away at the right time, writes Ireland’s 100m record holder Ailis McSweeney.

(AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa De Olza)

DRAMA, DRAMA, DRAMA — that is what we can expect as the relay heats and finals continue tonight.

The 4x400m event is great to watch and it’s easy to see how the race unfolds. When the handovers are messy sometimes an athlete who has passed the baton is in the way of another runner as they try to cut into lane one.

Also the 400m and 400m hurdle specialists are used to racing in lanes for the individual events rather than as a bunch in the inside lanes.

Those dangers are nothing compared to the technicality of the 4x100m relay. In Athens, Britain and USA took gold and silver in the men’s 4x100m. That was a poor result for the Americans but since then their team failed to finish or were disqualifed in the Beijing Olympics and the two most recent World Championships. The British men have not done much better and their women’s 4x100m team could not successfully get the baton around the lap enough times to even qualify for London. Cue Jamaican dominance of the men’s event!

It can be almost impossible to see what has happened in the race until you see a replay. Here’s a brief relay 101 to make it a little easier:

  • At each of the three points where the baton must pass there is a changeover zone and an acceleration zone.
  • The changeover zone is 20m in length and the baton must change hands within the zone.
  • The outgoing athlete stands in the 10m acceleration zone. Athletes at this level will use the entire zone.
  • The outgoing athlete leaves when the incoming runner hits a marker they have measured and laid down before the race starts.

Sounds simple? Not so much.

It is essentially the speed of the baton that is timed from start to finish. If you play it too safe with your marker, then the incoming runner will be on top of their teammate and will have to slow down to pass the baton which can also be hard to do when you are not stretched out. Too risky, and the outgoing runner is out of the zone before he gets a sniff of a pass or has to stop suddenly if the end zone is coming too quickly. The cardinal sin for the outgoing runner is leaving too early — before the incoming runner has hit the mark at all. A tight control on adrenaline and nerves is essential to get away at the right time.

We always say that the incoming runner has the responsibility to pass the baton, but the outgoing athlete can make their job harder by looking for the baton rather than keeping a steady hand. Schillonie Calvert of Jamaica made this mistake in the heats last night and they were beaten by Ukraine.

The quicker teams need to play it a little safe because they can rely on their super-quick athletes to make up for a less than amazing change. The slower teams should be well drilled enough to take a risk. Medals are up for grabs when the favourites make a mistake and the team with silky smooth changeovers will take advantage.

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Ailis McSweeney