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Tactics at the fore in athletics mixed relay

Allyson Felix Getty Images
A mini-revolution in athletics is underway, with the introduction of a new event onto the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme: the 4x400m mixed relay. Doha 2019 saw the event make a successful World Championship debut, in which tactics very much came to the fore…

At the World Athletics Championships in Doha, two new world records were set in the space of two days in the same event. No wonder: this was the inaugural appearance of the mixed 4x400m relay, featuring two men and two women per team. In a distance in which American athletes have traditionally performed extremely well, it was to be expected that Team USA would dominate the event.

The USA in full force

Having been trialled at the World Relays in Nassau in 2017 and at a number of other continental championships and Nitro Athletics meetings, the mixed relay officially made its debut at a major global competition at the IAAF World Championships in Doha on 28 and 29 September 2019. The principle is simple: each 4x400m relay team is made up of four runners, two women and two men, who can race in any order. The USA (Tyrell Richard, Jennifer Beard, Jasmine Blocker and Ogi Igbokwe) got the ball rolling with the first-ever official world record in the event during the heats, clocking a time of 3:12.42.   

In the final, which took place the day after the heats, the USA lined up with a completely different team: Wil London, Allyson Felix, Courtney Okolo and Michael Cherry – four fresh runners who had come to Doha specifically to compete in the relays. The Americans had an exceptional pool of talent at their disposal, allowing them to save their best assets for the final. The Bahamas, on the other hand, chose not to line up with their best runners, Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Steven Gardiner, who were focusing on the individual 400m events. The decision to rest certain athletes in the heats or the final clearly takes on a strategic dimension in a distance such as the 400m, in which recovery time and the cumulative effect of running several races in succession can have a real impact on performance.

mixed relay Getty Images
Strategy and excitement

The other strategic aspect of this new event is, of course, deciding the order in which the athletes will run, bearing in mind that, on average, men are approximately six seconds quicker than women over the distance (44-45 seconds for men compared to 50-51 seconds for women). All options are possible: two men followed by two women, or the other way round, or alternating between men and women. Most teams opted to begin with a man, followed by two women, with a man then running the anchor leg. In Nassau in 2017, at the World Relays, the Bahamas beat the USA thanks to Michael Mathieu, who made up a three-second gap on American Claudia Francis on the home straight.       

In Doha, Poland decided to start with two male runners, which opened up a sizeable gap of nearly 50 metres with the chasing pack. Iga Baumgart-Witan held the lead for her team on the third lap (racing against women) before passing the baton to Justyna Swiety-Ersetic, who, roared on by the crowd, attempted to do likewise.

Rafał OMELKO Getty Images

But, with the USA’s Michael Cherry in hot pursuit, Swiety-Ersetic’s lead lasted about as long as an ice cube in the Qatari desert, and the Pole was then overtaken by three other (male) athletes and had to settle for fifth place. With a time of 3:09.34, the USA beat the world record they had set the day before by more than three seconds.

Allyson Felix Getty Images

This tactical dimension is part of what makes the event so intriguing, especially given that coaches can keep the order in which the athletes will race under wraps until the last minute.

Allyson Felix surpasses Usain Bolt

The US victory was a particularly special moment for Allyson Felix, 33, who beat the all-time record of 11 world titles, which she had held jointly with Usain Bolt, by winning a 12th gold medal. She followed this up with a 13th in the traditional 4x400m, in which she competed in the heats. Her overall world titles haul therefore stands at three in the 200m, one in the 400m, three in the 4x100m, five in the 4x400m and one in the 4x400m mixed. Rather than thinking about chasing records, the American was, more than anything, just happy to be back in action on the track after the difficult birth of her first child in November 2018.

Born extremely prematurely, Felix’s daughter Camryn spent the first 29 days of her life in intensive care. “I can still hear the beeping and alarms of the machines,” said Felix. Next year, she will be aiming to qualify for her fifth Olympic Games and win a tenth Olympic medal – which would make her the oldest female American athlete to do so. “Making it through this year with so much going on… I think it’s going to make next year feel a lot easier.”

Athletics joins biathlon, triathlon and swimming

The mixed relay in Doha demonstrated the unique flavour of events that bring men and women together in competition. And after the biathlon mixed relay at the Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games (in which there is a set order – two women followed by two men), there will be much interest in the new mixed events in Tokyo: swimming, with the mixed 4x100m freestyle (with teams free to choose the order of the swimmers); triathlon (300m swimming, 7.5km cycling and 2km running, with a set woman-man-woman-man order); and, of course, athletics, with a 4x400m event in which the performance of Team USA will be highly anticipated.

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