Bad baton exchange keeps U.S. out of mixed 4x400 relay final, could cost Allyson Felix Olympic medal record

TOKYO -- The U.S. men have a long history of faulty baton exchanges in the Olympic track relays. So do the U.S. women.

And now, they've flubbed one together.

The country's difficult history in relay races reappeared in the Olympic debut of the 4x400-meter mixed relay Friday -- a race practically invented to send a gold medal back to the United States.

The Americans were disqualified after finishing first in the opening heat because of a bad exchange between Lynna Irby and Elija Godwin, a pair of 22-year-old runners who were placed on the U.S. team specifically to help get through the relay rounds. Officials ruled Irby had positioned herself "outside" the zone to receive the baton.

"Mistakes happen," Godwin said. "We are human. We do make mistakes."

It's a mistake that might have cost Allyson Felix a chance to win her record 10th Olympic medal. She helped the U.S. win this race in its debut at the world championships two years ago.

Though there was no word on the lineup for Saturday night's final, there was a chance she would have been in it. Now she won't, and her opportunity to break a tie with Jamaican great Merlene Ottey for the most women's track medals in Olympic history will have to wait until next week in the women's 400. Felix could also race in the women's 4x400 next weekend.

"We came out and tried our best," Godwin said. "It was a complete surprise to all of us. We heard the news. All we can do is prepare for the future and see what happens next."

Taylor Manson, the third leg, echoed that.

"We all put our best into it," she said. "I'm proud of everyone's effort."

This was the latest chapter in a decades-long series of mishaps for the U.S. in relays. Most have come in the shorter 4x100 relay where the pass is a more technical and time-sensitive move. This one came in a 4x400 race where the exchange shouldn't be nearly as difficult.

And it came just when it seemed as though the relays had gotten their act straightened out. The men won at the 2019 worlds and finished second at the 2017 worlds.

But before that -- lots of heartache. A DQ at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games marked the ninth time since 1995 they had botched the relay at a world championships or Olympics.

The women have a slightly better history. With Felix running the second leg, they set the world record in the 4x100 at the London Olympics in 2012. But they have not been immune to problems, either. They misconnected in 2004 and 2008 and got shut out of the medals.

In 2016, Felix was on the U.S. women's team that was initially disqualified from the preliminaries for an illegal pass in the 4x100. But they protested because Felix got jostled by another runner. Hours later, they came back to the track to run a time trial with no other team on the track. That advanced them to the final, where they won easily.

One possible reason for Friday night's mishap could be the lack of practice to get the timing right because of coronavirus protocols.

"We do have to be a lot more careful than any year before," Godwin said of virus restrictions. "If at the end of the day we get DQ'd, I know I'm going to hold my head up high because we went out and competed our best. I'm proud of all of our guys and girls."