For a track and field fan, one of the most memorable images from the 2012 London Olympics has to be that of Carmelita Jeter, the anchor of the US women’s 4×100 meters relay team, pointing the baton towards the electronic clock as she was about to cross the finish line of the Olympic final, well ahead of archrival Jamaica. With eyes wide and a proud, triumphant smile, Jeter was telling the world: look what we did!
The US team of Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Jeter clocked 40.82 seconds, smashing the old mark of 41.37 by an incredible margin, 55 hundredths of a second, the largest improvement of the world record in almost a half-century. Winning the Olympic gold in a world record is the highest achievement an athlete can dream of. In this case, the performance of the fabulous American sprinting quartet has even deeper meanings.
For the first time in the last three Olympics, the American women won their sprints duel with Jamaica, which finished second in the relay in a national record 41.41. The relay was the clincher, after the individual events were split, with Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryce winning the 100, with Jeter second, and Felix taking the 200 ahead of Fraser-Pryce and Jeter. Bragging rights are important here, especially considering that the US men went 0 for 3 against Usain Bolt & Co., and the end of the tunnel is not in sight.
Also, the London foursome redeemed past US 4×100 women’s relay teams, which dropped the baton in Olympic competition in 2008 in Beijing (heats) and 2004 in Athens (final) and finished only third in 2000 in Sydney.
More important, the US women erased from the list of top marks a 27-year old record that had been established by a team from a country which no longer exists, East Germany, the bête noire of women athletics (and swimming) throughout the 1970s and 1980s, where institutionalized doping was state policy.
That 41.37 was the last record set by East German sprinters. It came on the same day (October 6, 1985) as Marita Koch’s 47.60 record in the 400 meters, which may last 50 more years and even scared Felix down to the 100 instead of a natural progression to the quarter, where her imperial stride covered the second leg of the 4×400 relay final in London in a stunning 47.8.
Then Florence Griffith-Joyner picked up where the East German lab had left. Individual alchemy proved to be equally potent and produced surreal figures, 10.49 for the 100, 21.34 for the 200. With all the world’s progress in almost a quarter of a century incorporated, the amazingly beautiful Felix from London would have been five yards behind Flo-Jo in Seoul 1988. Track cynics would tell you that only Mephisto could beat Felix by five yards.
Track fans and young runners everywhere should rejoice for this first world record in women’s sprints of the post GDR / Flo-Jo era. Forty point eighty-two is a landmark, a memorable accomplishment. How memorable? At the previous London Olympics, in 1948, the US men’s 4×100 relay team anchored by Mel Patton won the title in 40.6, a hand time slightly inferior to 40.82.