“Now I’ve noticed a tendency for this programme to get rather silly…” The Colonel’s immortal words when interrupting a Monty Python sketch find an echo in the final days of every great athletics championships. We get to the relays, which have a tendency to get rather silly. And the British tend to get sillier than most.
Farce is funnier the more desperately well-meaning the characters and the more serious the situation. The England men’s football team brought farce to the penalty shootout, and Britain’s male sprinters have done the same with the baton-change in the 4x100m relay.
No matter the personnel, they have the ability to bring both Olympics and World Championships down to the level of a junior school sports day. The four fastest men in the country, men who have dedicated their life to speed, manage to turn this ultimate expression of human grace under pressure into the egg-and-spoon race.
It’s that stick. Getting the baton round an oval through four pairs of hands seems to be beyond the scope of British athletes – the men, anyway. Perhaps the ultimate example came in the World Championships of 2015 when they missed the last change entirely, with CJ Ujah streaking off towards the finish at full pelt – without the baton – while his team-mate, James Ellington, having failed to get rid of the damn thing in the orthodox way, hurled it into the air in disgust.
CJ Ujah sets off too early in the 2015 World Championships final
The members of the team had to be separated after the race as they queued up to make sure Ujah got the blame. Sure, blame Ujah – only the fastest sprinter in Britain. “If Harry had been there we would have got the job done,” said Richard Kilty, meaning the bronze medal, and referring to Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, who had been dropped for the final in Ujah’s favour.
It hurt all the more because it was part of a pattern. The British boys had got the baton round the track only once in a major final since 2008. Farce had become a tradition. Although in fairness, we should accept that passing a baton at speed is not as easy as the Jamaicans make it look, handing over for Usain Bolt to run the anchor leg.
It’s the contradiction that makes it so tricky. You must perform a delicate, finicky task that requires stillness and calm – and yet do it at a moment of maximum speed. It’s like threading a needle while running for a bus as someone else – perhaps someone you hate – holds the needle.
Sprinters are notoriously difficult characters, edgy and desperately keen on hierarchy. Team spirit doesn’t come easy to them. Mind you, the women managed a bronze in the sprint relay at the Rio Olympics, so it clearly can be done.
After the fallout of 2015, the men worked with a psychologist on bonding exercises. They performed tasks together and solved problems as a team, seeking mutual love, or at least mutual tolerance. As a result, they did indeed get the baton round in Rio – finishing sixth.
They were promoted to fifth because the US were disqualified for handing over the baton outside the zone. So don’t miss the relays. There might be the most glorious sport, and when Bolt’s around, that’s always possible. And there might be a joyous moment of farce, too. That a 12in cylinder can give four elite athletes such trouble…
The men’s and women’s 4x100m relays are on Saturday: first rounds from 9.30am, finals 9.30pm (women), 9.50pm (men) BBC1, Eurosport 1; 8pm 5 Live