Anchor-Leg Strength May Be Hurting Relay Handoffs

The U.S. men's and women's 400-meter relay teams failed to qualify for the Olympic finals because of dropped batons. Terry Long, who coached medal-winning runner Walter Dix, says most Olympic-level athletes who run the relay don't have experience running anything but the anchor leg.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Suddenly, it's boomer Olympic flashback time. When I was a kid following the Olympics for the first time in 1960, America's best male sprinter, Ray Norton, had a disastrous run of misfortune. In addition to losing the 100 meters, he famously blew the baton pass in the 400 meter relay.

Well, today, both the men and women's U.S. 400 meter relay teams dropped the baton in their respective qualifying races and will not compete for the gold. Why does that dropped baton problem seem to plague U.S. athletes?

Well, joining me on the line is Terry Long, former head coach of track and field at Florida State University for nearly 20 years. He recently came out of retirement to coach Olympic sprinter Walter Dix, who is a bronze medalist in both the 100 and 200 meter events.

And first, Terry Long, what makes passing the baton so hard?

Mr. TERRY LONG (Former Head Coach of Track and Field, Florida State University): Well, the frustrating part of it is it shouldn't be that hard. You've got one runner coming into a prescribed 20 meter zone at about 26 miles per hour. And the outgoing man has to match up his outgoing speed with the incoming speed of the runner with the baton. Matching it up is - that's the challenge always.

In the collegiate scene, we're able to deal with that pretty effectively because we have a common set of athletes running in certain positions on the relay. And you just simply practice. You get the repetition. You still - and you get pretty good at it.

SIEGEL: Is the problem here that an Olympic relay team is an all-star team, so you may have runners who aren't accustomed to passing to each other and also who might all be - ran the anchor lap on the original teams?

Mr. LONG: Well, that's precisely what does happen. Most of our relay teams are made up of the top six to eight athletes forming the pool coming out of our national championship. That means these people are in and of their own rights. They're elite level runners. And probably, in their collegiate experience, being the best on their team, they probably ran the anchor leg.

So, you end up with your pool made of maybe three-quarters of the guys who have experience running the anchor leg and they don't have much experience running other legs on the relay.

SIEGEL: Is it, in some way, symptomatic of the problem? Let's say, you, you coach one sprinter who's there, that there are - athletes have individual training programs and that they don't train together as relay teams.

Mr. LONG: Well, that's true. And to further compound it, they come out of collegiate programs where their baton-passing techniques might vary from one school to another.

SIEGEL: So, what does U.S. track and field do? A big pass-the-baton program, public service announcements? What's on tap?

Mr. LONG: This has been a problem that we've been faced with for quite a number of years. And they've put together a relay program. They're trying more and more to get some of these elite athletes together at major meets, like the 10 relays. We even had three meets in Europe leading up to the Olympics this year where we brought our relay pool together and ran a couple of teams and had no problems whatsoever. So, here we are back at ground zero again and everybody wants to find a good solution.

SIEGEL: Terry Long, former track coach at Florida State University and current coach of Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix. Thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. LONG: Thank you.

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