In the final part of a special series in the run-up to Rio 2016, Steve Smythe looks at the history of the men’s relay events at the Olympic Games
In the first Olympic relay final – a medley relay of 200m, 200m, 400m and 800m held in London in 1908 where runners touched hands rather than pass a baton – USA won easily in 3:29.4.
Britain won the first 4x100m in 1912 in Stockholm (see “British successes” below) but as in most men’s relays, the USA won the 4x400m easily with their team including Mel Sheppard, who was running his ninth race in 10 days having also run the 400m, 800m and 1500m. Their time was a world record 3:16.6.
The USA 4x100m team set a world record in Antwerp in 1920 of 42.2 and they improved that to 41.0 in Paris in 1924, a time they set in both heat and final.
Their 4×400 team suffered a shock defeat to Britain in 1920 but normal service was resumed at Paris as they won in a world record 3:16.0. Four years later in Amsterdam a completely different squad lowered that to 3:14.2 as Germany, Canada and Sweden also bettered the previous mark.
In the Netherlands, USA’s 4x100m team equalled the 41.0 world record and they proved their dominance even more in 1932 in Los Angeles as they lowered the record to 40.6 in the heat and then 40.0 in the final without using Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe and George Simpson, who had swept the medals in the 200m and placed three in four in the 100m.
They also dominated the 4x400m, setting a historic 3:08.2 to destroy the previous world mark of 3:12.6.
The Americans also broke a barrier in Berlin in 1936 – the 40 second mark in the 4x100m as Jesse Owens was part of a team that won by 1.3 seconds in 39.8.
Controversy reigned as the Americans dropped the only two Jewish members of their squad in Germany, seemingly because of pressure from the hosts. They were well beaten by the Brits, though, in the 4x400m.
USA dominated both relays in London in 1948, albeit in modest times. They retained the 4x100m title in Helsinki in 1952, but they were beaten in a sensational race in the 4x400m. Jamaica had hoped to rival them in 1948, but Arthur Wint pulled a muscle and they failed to finish. The same quartet returned to Finland and, aided by a startling 44.6 leg by Herb McKenley, they edged the Americans with a world record 3:03.9 to take more than four seconds off the previous mark.
With Jamaica disqualified, the USA regained the long relay title in Melbourne in 1956, when they reduced the 4x100m world mark to 39.5. Seeking their ninth successive title, they equalled that mark in the Rome 1960 heats, but although they were faster in the final, they were disqualified and Germany, who were second across the line, took gold and a share of the world record with their 39.5 victory.
They made up for some of the disappointment in Italy with a world record 3:02.2 as Olympic champion Otis Davis held off his fellow world record-setter from the final, Carl Kaufmann, who took Germany well inside the old mark too.
Curiously, Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados combined in these Games and competed as British West Indies with a mostly Jamaican team finishing third.
They improved the record again to 3:00.7 in winning the title in Tokyo in 1964. They also set a record in the 4x100m but in more sensational style as 100m champion Bob Hayes took off in fifth place on the final leg. He ran what many regard the greatest relay leg in history as he stormed through in an estimated 8.9 to give them an easy win in 39.0.
With further poor baton passing, they also had to come from behind in 1968 in Mexico and this time it was 100m champion James Hines who came through. He moved from third to first as they won in 38.24 with the first four beating the old record mark.
The USA had no such troubles in the 4x400m. Aided by Larry Freeman’s 43.2 – then the fastest leg ever recorded – and anchored by world record-holder Lee Evans, they obliterated the record, winning by more than three seconds in 2:56.2.
Kenya took second and were led off by Daniel Rudisha, then notable as the first Masai tribesman to run in an Olympics but now more noted as the father of the London 2012 800m champion, David.
The USA didn’t have the same fortune in Munich in 1972. They suspended the first two in the individual 400m, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, for not showing respect at the medal ceremony as they were talking and fidgeting through the US anthem. John Smith, who failed to finish the 400m as he was injured, was also unable to run the relay and so the squad were left with just three runners out of the declared six.
In USA’s absence, Kenya won as Julius Sang’s 43.6 leg took him past the fading German Karl Honz, who dropped from first to fourth in the final straight. However, USA won the 4x100m in a world record 38.19, and so for the first time in eight Olympics the winning team did not include the 100m winner as Valeriy Borzov and the Soviet squad were third.
They retained the sprint relay title in Montreal in 1976 and also won the 4x400m with ease with defending champions Kenya boycotting the event.
USA boycotted Moscow in 1980 where the Soviets narrowly beat East Germany in the slowest winning time for 20 years. Against the rules back then, the Soviets controversially rested 400m champion Viktor Markin and then claimed his replacement was injured for the final so they could bring in the one-lap winner. The Soviets also edged the sprint relay with Poland close behind.
The USA returned in style in Los Angeles in 1984 and with the East Europeans absent, won the sprint relay in a world record 37.83, with Carl Lewis contributing a 8.94 anchor to win his fourth gold medal of the Games. They also won the 4x400m in a quality race as they won in 2:57.91 with four teams dipping below three minutes for the first time.
They were more dominant in Seoul in 1988 as they won in a world record-equalling 2:56.16 to take gold by more than four seconds. However, the Americans didn’t impress in the 4x100m as they were disqualified in the heats and, in their absence, the Soviets surprisingly regained the title.
They made up for it at Barcelona in 1992 as Carl Lewis completed a world record 37.40 run with them also setting a record in the 4x400m as they ran 2:55.74 with Quincy Watts running 43.1 and Steve Lewis 43.4. The margin was again around four seconds.
They were pushed much closer in Atlanta in 1996 as with 200m and 400m champion Michael Johnson absent with injury, they ran 2:55.99.
The USA had won 15 of the 19 previous 4x100m finals, but all their four losses had been through disqualifications in heats or finals. However, for the first time they were genuinely beaten in Atlanta. Canada, aided by 100m champion Donovan Bailey, won easily in 37.69 and it would have been quicker had he not started celebrating 10 metres before the finish.
America were back in command in Sydney in 2000 as they took the gold in 37.61.They also crossed the line first in the 4x400m in 2:56.35 but it was later revealed that one of their team Jerome Young, who had run in the heats, was ineligible to compete due to a failed drugs test. Nigeria were eventually made Olympic champions.
They won in Athens in 2004 but sensationally lost the 4x100m (see ‘most memorable’ below).
Jamaica, aided by Usain Bolt, won the sprint relays in both 2008 and 2012, the latter in a still-standing world record 36.84.
The USA nevertheless won the 4x400m in Beijing in 2008 but lost to the Bahamas in London in 2012.
Most memorable Olympics: Athens 2004
On paper it wasn’t a match. The USA had 100m champion Justin Gatlin, 200m champion Shawn Crawford and five-time world champion Maurice Greene in their quartet.
The British squad had four runners who had failed to make any finals in Greece.
In the semi-finals, even by resting Gatlin, the USA beat Britain by half a second in 38.02.
In the final, Jason Gardener gave the British team a good start and had a good first change-over while Crawford slowed badly before handing the baton to Gatlin.
Gatlin’s changeover to Coby Miller was even worse as Miller had to slow right down to take the baton and Gatlin trod on his team-mate’s foot as Darren Campbell’s second leg and subsequent handover to Marlon Devonish went well.
Miller came back a little on the other teams but Greene set off two metres behind Mark Lewis-Francis. Greene closed the gap but finished a hundredth of a second down as Britain won the tightest Olympic relay in history.
The 4x400m went the other way as the USA won by the biggest ever margin of 4.69 seconds and their 2:55.91 time was the fastest in the world for six years. Australia and Nigeria followed them home.
Clocking 42.4, Britain were winners of the first Olympic 4x100m relay in 1912, although they were aided by USA being disqualified after winning their semi-final in 42.2 and heat winners Germany (42.3) being disqualified in the final.
Britain then won the silver medal in 1924, with 100m champion Harold Abrahams behind on the opening leg and the Britons never making up the deficit.
They won the bronze in 1928, were a well beaten second in 1948 on home soil and were again third in 1960 in Rome.
They should have won in 1988 as Linford Christie couldn’t quite catch the Russian team and they had to settle for silver, but went one better in 2004.
In the 4x400m, Britain were third in the inaugural final in 1912 but won the next one in Antwerp in 1920 as the Americans were a slightly surprising fourth.
They might well have retained the title in 1924 as they finished third without the services of 400m champion Eric Liddell, who was away preaching a sermon and unavailable because it was a Sunday.
They were a well-beaten second in 1932, even though they broke the old world record.
With the Americans resting two of the individual medallists, Britain took advantage in 1936 and won comfortably in 3:09.00. The next medal came 20 years later with a bronze in Melbourne and then a strong anchor by Robbie Brightwell ensured a silver in 1964 in Tokyo.
They also finished second in 1972, with David Jenkins running a fine final leg. It was silver again in 1984 with Phil Brown excelling on a quality final leg.
After beating the Americans in a classic 1991 world final, Britain were a slightly disappointing third in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but they had a much better race in the 1996 final in Atlanta.
The team of Iwan Thomas, Jamie Baulch, Mark Richardson and Roger Black pushed the Americans hard with a 2:56.60, a time that only the Americans themselves have bettered before or since.
Great Britain took gold again after 92 years, winning in 2004.
» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series
» For the full Olympic history: Men’s relays feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the June 16, 2016, edition of AW magazine