The Relay Curse Continues for the U.S. Men

TOKYO — The disappointment for U.S. track and field, especially on the men’s side, continued in familiar fashion on Thursday, when four of the world’s fastest sprinters failed to qualify for the final of the 4×100-meter relay race.

The American disappointment continued minutes later, as Hansle Parchment of Jamaica upset world champion Grant Holloway in the 110-meter hurdles. Holloway had the lead early but could not hang on. Ronald Levy of Jamaica won the bronze, relegating Devon Allen of the United States to fourth.

The relay crystallized a performance by the U.S. men at the Olympic track meet that is quickly going off the rails.

A mediocre start from Trayvon Bromell — who was the fastest man in the world before these Olympics — and some sloppy baton passing spelled doom for the Americans in the relay, despite unmatched depth in sprinting.

“I’m honestly kind of mad, not at these guys, they did what they can do,” Bromell said on television after the race.

The baton pass that felled the U.S. team came between the second and third legs as Fred Kerley handed the stick to Ronnie Baker. The transfer happened far too slowly, costing the team valuable time they could not make up. Both men were finalists in the 100 meters, with Kerley taking the silver in that race.

In previous years, when the United States failed to achieve success in the relay, a dropped baton was to blame. In this case, the Americans got the baton around the track safely, but they were not fast enough.

Relay racing presents sprinters with a devil’s choice: Run too fast and the danger of dropping the baton rises, especially with sprinters reaching speeds of more the 26 miles per hour. Focus too heavily on taking care of the baton, and the time inevitably suffers.

Bromell was slow getting out of the gate, and the U.S. men could not make up the deficit. After the final pass, Cravon Gillespie appeared to have edged into third place and the Americans looked as if they might survive to the final, but he was flat out beaten by runners from China and Canada. Andre De Grasse of Canada, the surprise winner of the 200 meters on Wednesday night over Noah Lyles of the United States, blazed the final leg.

The result drew immediate criticism from the biggest name in American track and field.

“The USA team did everything wrong in the men’s relay,” Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist, wrote on Twitter. “The passing system is wrong, athletes running the wrong legs, and it was clear that there was no leadership.”

Officials from U.S.A. Track and Field, the national governing body, declined to comment.

The sprint relay continues to be a mystery that the U.S. team cannot solve. It has not won a medal in the event since 2004, when the Americans took the silver, and the men have not won the gold medal in the race since 2000. That failure has baffled fans, as the depth of U.S. talent is usually unmet by competitors.

In 2008, a dropped baton and confusion in the lead-up to the race about who would participate doomed the team. In 2012, the Americans appeared to regain their form, losing out to a Jamaican squad led by Usain Bolt. But Tyson Gay, one of the Americans, subsequently tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, forcing the U.S. team to return their silver medals.

At the 2016 Rio Games, the United States appeared to have won a bronze medal, but replays showed that the first exchange had taken place on an illegal area of the track. The team was disqualified.

Not making the final of the race brings the frustration to a new level. The Americans were outrun by teams from China, Canada, Italy, Germany and Ghana.

Kenny Bednarek and Lyles, who won the silver and the bronze medals in the 200 meters on Wednesday night, did not participate in the relay. Lyles was part of the world champion team from 2019, and Bednarek said on Wednesday that he expected to be part of the relay team. Both could have taken part in the finals, as the rules allow countries to sub out runners between the semifinals and finals.

Strangely, the relay frustration for the American men is unique to the Olympic Games. They won the event at the 2019 world championships and earned a silver medal in the race at the 2017 world championships.

The Olympic frustration in the 110-meter high hurdles is somewhat less acute. Americans failed to medal in the event in 2016 but won two medals in 2012 and 2008.

Holloway looked to have the race under control early on, but in the second half he appeared to be rising too high over the hurdles, something that runners in the front can be prone to doing in order to protect themselves from hitting a hurdle while holding the lead.

The conservative strategy gave Parchment a chance to catch up, and he burned past Holloway in the final meters, edging him by five one-hundredths of a second, 13.04 to 13.09.

The American men are likely to spend the next several months trying to figure out what went wrong in Tokyo. There is little time to make adjustments, with Eugene, Ore., set to host the track and field world championships next summer.