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TOKYO – Team USA arrived in Tokyo with three of the fastest men in the world in the 100 meters this year, making it a heavy favorite to win the men's 4x100 relay.
Instead, in a stunning development, the U.S. failed to even qualify for the final.
The U.S. relay team of Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker and Cravon Gillespie finished sixth in its preliminary heat of men's 4x100 competition Thursday, behind China, Canada, Italy, Germany and Ghana – in that order.
All told, the Americans' time of 38.10 seconds was the eighth-fastest time among the 16 teams entered in the event. The top three teams in each of the two heats automatically qualified for the final, with the next two fastest advancing on time.
"We just didn't get the job done today," Kerley said. "That's all."
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The U.S. has a long history of Olympic relay woes, medal hopes dashed by bobbled exchanges or lane violations. The primary issue Thursday appeared to be a poor handoff on the second exchange, as Kerley passed the baton to Baker.
"Shoot, Fred's run 9.8 this year. I've run 9.8," Baker said. "Honestly just trying to time that up perfectly with a couple practices is a little difficult, but it is what it is."
Baker, Gillespie and Kerley spoke with reporters in the mixed zone after the race. When asked exactly how much practice time they had going into Thursday, each was succinct.
"Don't know," said Kerley.
"Not much," Baker added.
"A few days," Gillespie said. "I'll give you that. A few days."
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U.S. sprinting legend Carl Lewis, who was part of 4x100 teams that won gold in 1984 and 1992, called the performance "a total embarrassment" on Twitter.
He later told USA TODAY Sports that he took issue with everything from the baton-passing system to the relay order, including the decision to have Baker – a 100-meter specialist, who is most comfortable on the straightaway – run the third leg, along the curved portion of the track.
"The relay program has been a disaster for years because there’s no leadership and no system," Lewis said. "When I said everything is wrong, it is. If you break it down, people were in the wrong legs, obviously they were not taught how to pass the baton in those legs. Just simple things like that.
"I watched it. I’m not blaming the athletes so much. This was leadership."
USA Track & Field declined to make head relay coach Orin Richburg available for an interview Thursday. A spokesperson told USA TODAY Sports in an email that coaches would not be available for interviews until competition is completed.
Gillespie said he believes the U.S. is a victim of its own strength, to a certain extent.
"There's a lot of teams out here that have the same team for three, four, five years," he said. "So they have that chemistry, they have that practice, they have relay camps and so on and so forth. With us, you really never know who's going to make the team in the U.S., because it's the hardest team to make."
Gillespie wasn't making excuses, mind you. He called their performance "unacceptable" and "most definitely" embarrassing.
The Americans haven't won a medal in the men's 4x100 relay since 2004, and they haven't won gold in the event since 2000. They appeared to have won bronze at the 2016 Rio Games but were then disqualified for an exchange violation. They won silver in 2012 but later had to return their medals after Tyson Gay was convicted of doping. And a botched handoff doomed them in 2008.
"It's definitely a lot of expectations, going in here and going to these meets, having all these, I guess, eyes on you," Gillespie said. "But at the end of the day, we're professionals and this is what we're here to do. We're here to get these medals.
"Being on the USA team, it's like 'gold-gold-gold.' But at the end of the day, you have to go out here and you have to perform. You can't just expect them to hand you a medal."
The U.S. women, meanwhile, had a much smoother morning. Their 4x100 team of Javianne Oliver, Teahna Daniels, English Gardner and Aleia Hobbs finished second to Great Britain in their preliminary heat to advance to Friday's final.
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympics 2021: US men's 4x100 relay fails to qualify for event final