The U.S. track team loses its grip

In a nightmarish 30 minutes, the world's track powerhouse is humiliated -- while amazing little Jamaica laps it again.

Published August 22, 2008 11:25AM (EDT)

The U.S. track and field team, apparently dazed and confused after being repeatedly humiliated by a team from a tiny country best known for reggae, ganja and rum running, lost its grip Thursday -- literally. In a hideous 30 minutes, first the men's 400-meter relay team, then the women's, bungled their final handoffs in their semifinal races with easy qualification in sight and were disqualified. Coming on top of U.S. failures in the 100 and 200 meters, Lolo Jones' heartbreaking mistake on the penultimate hurdle and numerous other bitter disappointments, it was a kick in the guts to the world's track powerhouse. Never before have both U.S. teams dropped the baton in the same Olympics.

It was a shocking display of ineptitude, and revealed the U.S. track and field team to be in serious meltdown. One drop is a nightmare, but forgivable; two can only be due to either poor coaching or unprepared athletes or both.

What makes the drops all the more galling is that the U.S. is supposed to own this distance. The U.S. men have won 15 of the 22 400 relays in Olympics history, although they are now in by far their worst long-term doldrums ever, having won only three of the last seven Olympic relays. (I was in Athens in 2004 when Great Britain beat Maurice Greene and company by .01 second, and I think there are still some lager louts holed up somewhere hoisting pints over that epic takedown of the cretins from the Colonies.) The women have won nine of 18 and, not counting the 1980 Moscow Games that the U.S. boycotted, had not missed a final since 1948.

But that history meant nothing as the U.S. sprinters handled the baton like a drunk trying to thread a needle.

For the top U.S. male speed-burner, Tyson Gay, his botched exchange with Darvis Patton means that his Olympics are over and he'll go home with nothing. For Lauryn Williams and Torii Edwards, their game of oopsie is truly nightmarish: Both women had already been involved in blown handoffs, Edwards in 2000 and Williams in 2004. (The former mistake resulted in a bronze medal, now stripped because of Marion Jones' participation in the relay; the latter resulted in the U.S. women's being disqualified.) Now both will forever be known as double-droppers -- not the label you want stuck on an illustrious athletic career. (Memo to U.S. Track and Field: Was it really a good idea to have these two women handing off to each other?)

Asked what happened, Williams resorted to stereotypes even more offensive than the ones I opened this column with, saying, "I have no idea, somebody somewhere has got a voodoo doll on the United States." Later, she accused the stick of possessing malevolent cognitive powers. "My hand was there. The stick was there," she said. "What I'm telling people is that the stick had a mind of its own. It's not my fault, it's not her fault, it's not either of our fault."

Uh-huh. And I guess that same evil stick forced Williams to start running too soon in Athens. Her theme song should be Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." At least the American men didn't try to blame their drop on objects containing toenail scrapings that do not obey the laws of physics: Both took the blame. (NBC commentator Ato Boldon, who has turned out to be a terrific, knowledgeable analyst, blamed Patton, and replays appeared to confirm his opinion.)

But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that the U.S. track team, which has won only four gold medals, is now in danger of turning in its worst top-of-the-podium performance ever (it won six golds in 1972 and 1976). For the first time ever at the Olympics, the U.S. has failed to win gold in any of the six short sprints -- the men's and women's 100 and 200 and both relays. And America managed only Walter Dix's bronze in the men's 100. (Dix, a fierce competitor whose tough-guy face seems to belie a complex personality, had one of the great post-race lines after being smoked by Bolt in the 200. When NBC's camera caught someone, I believe his agent, congratulating him on medaling after two runners were disqualified, you could hear Dix say, "Hey, I still lost.")

But the U.S. collapse shouldn't take anything away from the truly mind-boggling accomplishments of the Jamaican track team. The Caribbean nation of fewer than 3 million people has now won nine track medals -- five gold, three silver and a bronze. (The U.S. has won 20 -- four gold, eight silver and eight bronze.) With the U.S. self-destructing out of the 400 relay field, Jamaica is likely to add to its totals.

And not only is Team Irie winning, it's dominating. (This is not really a surprise to anyone who has ever been to Jamaica and seen Jamaicans run. They can book.) Usain Bolt is the story of these games, but Thursday the great Veronica Campbell-Brown thoroughly whipped U.S. rival Allyson Felix in the 200, just as she did in Athens. And, of course, the lightning-fast Jamaican women swept the 100, the first time one nation has ever collected all three medals in the 100. The U.S. women were never in contention.

The U.S. did sweep the men's 400, but the race -- one of the most highly anticipated in the games -- turned out to be a letdown. In yet another of the now-familiar cases of U.S. favorites not holding form, Jeremy Wariner, aka That Ridiculously Fast White Guy, ran out of gas down the stretch and was easily blown out by his rival, LaShawn Merritt. It's been a bad two days for all-time great Michael Johnson, who first saw Bolt break his "untouchable" 19.32 200 world record, then watched as his protégé Wariner, who was supposed to threaten Johnson's 43.18 world record in the 400, turned in a mediocre performance on the world's biggest stage.

It's dark days for those of us for whom the U.S. track team is one of our great, innocent sources of national pride. But they'll be partying in Negril and Ocho Rios and Kingston tonight. And whatever it is those celebrants are smoking down there, they should blow some of it toward the Bird's Nest. Maybe it'll get that evil baton so loaded it won't be able to move.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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