One message to take from baton blunders: U.S. track has hit rock bottom

Darvis Patton, right, and Tyson Gay both claimed responsibility for the baton drop after Thursday's qualifying heat. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

BEIJING -- Beneath the stricken faces of the American men's and women's relay runners Thursday night was an odd wardrobe malfunction: The bibs pinned to their chests were hand written.

The letters "USA" appeared to have been scrawled with black marker, unlike the professionally printed bibs worn by the rest of the world's teams. On a rainy night at the Bird's Nest, what used to be the three most-feared letters in sprinting were splotched and runny.

"We didn't get the right ones," women's 4x100-meter relay anchor Lauryn Williams said of the bibs. "I don't know why. It's just another weird thing that happened."

It was more metaphor than weird. On a night when the American men's and women's relay squads dressed like a community college team that entered a local meet late, they ran down to the quality of their bibs. They ran like small-time amateurs.

Twice in an inept 30-minute span, the Americans fumbled the baton in preliminary races and eliminated themselves from the 400 relays they historically have owned. In a meet that has revealed the precipitous decline of U.S. track and field, the twin tink-tinks of aluminum hitting track heralded the arrival at rock bottom.

Blame it on BALCO and its aftershocks -- although I personally would rather have skinny, slow, clean sprinters than big, fast, dirty ones. Blame it on bad administration and coaching. Blame it on a smaller pool of elite athletes who are interested in track. Whatever your cause of choice, Americans are laying eggs all over the Bird's Nest.

Especially when a routine round of prelims turned into Dropapalooza.

This was a rapidly recurring nightmare for the American runners. Both times, the baton snafu happened in Lane 2. Both times, it happened on the third and final handoff. And both times, the relay gaffe happened when a super-safe pass was the only thing necessary to easily advance to Friday night's final. To have failed in that context (twice) is staggering.

Admittedly, it was a wet night, and there was a slew of relay problems -- 11 of the 32 men's and women's teams were disqualified for baton drops or leaving their lanes -- but most of the other relay teams needed utmost speed just to qualify. The Americans had no such urgency, just a need for expediency.

Instead, they gagged at a particularly inopportune time.

Jamaica already had reduced America to ashes in the dashes. A country of 2.8 million people swept gold medals in both the men's and women's 100 and 200 and won seven of the 12 medals available in those four races: four gold, two silver, one bronze. A country of 300 million -- which has served as a collegiate training ground for many of those Jamaicans -- won four medals: two silver, two bronze.

"As a team, we're dominating this Olympics," said Jamaican sprinter Kerron Clark, who finished third in the women's 200 Thursday night. "[Usain] Bolt set it off for us, and after that, the Jamaican camp went crazy."

Combine the Jamaican steamrolling with the fact that the Americans will go medal-less in both 400 relays for the first time in modern Olympic history, and you begin to get the grisly picture. Add in the fact that no American men qualified for the finals of any jumps -- long, high or triple -- and it becomes more defined.

And this should make it crystal clear: Despite isolated triumphs, like sweeping both the men's 400 and 400 hurdles, the United States will have to come through in the final days here to avoid tying or breaking its record-low track gold-medal count (six, in 1972 and 1976).

Currently, the Americans have four gold medals at the Bird's Nest, one fewer than Jamaica and Russia. Four decent chances at victory remain: the decathlon, the women's long jump and both 4x400 relays -- provided they can hold onto the stick in the latter two. After Thursday night, you can't take any relay pass for granted.

The men blew it first in the 4x100. They were in a close race with Trinidad and Tobago when Darvis Patton came around the turn and reached with the stick. Anchor Tyson Gay reached back, and the baton hit his palm for at least an instant. Then, the two men separated and -- tink -- there it was, lying on the track.

That spurred a mixed zone mea culpa fest. Which at least beat pointing fingers.

"I take the blame for this," Patton said.

"I'll take the blame for it," Gay said, adding that he'd "never dropped a stick in my life."

"You can put it right on my shoulders," U.S. men's coach Bubba Thornton said.

Thornton said his runners had "done this a million times" but not anywhere near that number as a team. They did not practice handoffs in the U.S. after the Olympic trials because of Gay's hamstring injury. Here in China, Gay said, "We passed sticks a few times, and we had great sticks. Everything was perfect."

Until it had to be. Then it was a disaster.

Now Gay, America's preeminent male sprinter, goes home without even competing in an Olympic final, having bombed out in the 100.

"That's just kind of the way it's been for me these Olympics," he said.

It was even worse half an hour later for the women. For one thing, they'd just seen their countrymen blow up in shocking fashion, so you'd think they'd be in ultra-safe mode. For another, those with extended Olympic recall had to raise an eyebrow at who would be making that fateful final baton pass.

The third leg was run by Torri Edwards, who was part of a bungled exchange in the 400 relay in 2000 that resulted in a disappointing bronze. (It got worse earlier this year when the IOC stripped Edwards and her teammates of that medal, thanks to Marion Jones' involvement in the relay.)

The fourth leg was run by Williams, who massacred the baton pass in this event in 2004 by starting too early and running out of the exchange zone, DQ'ing the team.

This time, they appeared to come together in concert, hands reaching forward and backward smoothly, stick momentarily touching both palms. And then?

Oops, they did it again.

As the baton fell, Edwards covered her mouth with both hands, horrified. Williams went back and grabbed it, running to the finish line, later saying she never again was going to walk off the track in a relay after what happened in 2004. That was an admirable sentiment, but the result was the same: DQ.

"My hand was there," Williams said. "The stick was there. What I'm telling people is that the stick had a mind of its own. It's not my fault, it's not her fault, it's not either of our fault."

Correction: It's the fault of both. As is the case with the dismal performance of U.S. track and field in Beijing, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Information from ESPN The Magazine senior writer Luke Cyphers was used in this report. Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.