Feature25 May 2014

World records at the IAAF World Relays are worlds apart


(L-R) Irene Jelagat, Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon, Mercy Cherono and Hellen Onsando Obiri of Kenya pose together after setting a new world record of 16:33.58 in the Women's 4x1500 metres relay (© Getty Images)

The results of the women’s 4x1500m and men’s 4x200m both bear the capital letters ‘WR’ beside the name of the winners but beyond that, the two world records* put up in Saturday night's action at the inaugural IAAF World Relays have little in common.

The first mark, the women's 4x1500m, was widely regarded as the most likely to fall; a near certainty if not an absolute one.

Kenyan teams had lowered the mark twice in trials races at altitude in Nairobi last month, but the times now seem hardly worth ratifying; the last one was a 17:05.72 on 26 April.

To beat that mark would require an average time faster than 4:17 for each leg, and the squad Kenya eventually brought to the line – Mercy Cherono, Faith Kipyegon, Irene Jelagat and Hellen Obiri – had average personal bests faster than four minutes.

Obiri had just run a national record of 8:20.68 over 3000m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha to become the sixth fastest runner ever over the distance, with Cherono just behind in 8:21.14; those two marks together would be well under the previous record.

So the question, realistically, was not whether the Kenyan quartet would lower the record, but by how much.

By contrast, the men's 4x200m record was set 20 years ago at the 1994 Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, by a Santa Monica Track Club squad that included of Leroy Burrell, Mike Marsh, and IAAF Athlete of the 20th Century Carl Lewis, collectively with more world and Olympic medals between them than many countries see in a century. (The fourth leg, Floyd Heard, had sub-20 200m credentials but fewer medals.)

At 1:18.68, besting the record would require an average split of 19.67 or better, a time the likes of which few athletes have ever run, and while both the Jamaican and US squads claimed to be chasing the record, nobody really knew if the difference between block starts from a standstill and running relay passes would make them fast enough to challenge the record.

In the end the surprise of the 4x1500m was not that Kenya lowered the record, nor that their mark of 16:33.58 took a staggering 32 seconds off the previous time, but that the US squad of Heather Kampf, Kate Mackey, Kate Grace and Brenda Martinez beat the old record as well, albeit coming home more than 20 seconds adrift of the runaway winners.

US women also inside old record

The US effort of 16:55.33 was particularly notable after Mackey, looking back to get the baton from Kampf, ran headlong into Australia's slowing Zoe Buckman, who had completed her pass to Bridey Delaney after staying close to Cherono through the first leg.

Both Mackey and Buckman wound up on the track, but Mackey retained the baton and got back up, which was enough.

Australia, too, ran an Oceanian record of 17:08.65, the fifth-fastest recognised mark ever, behind two each from Kenya and the USA. 

The winning Kenyans, while clearly pleased and despite the effervescent Cherono dancing on the sidelines, showed less emotion the Jamaican men, who were in the air instantly when their time flashed up, before Blake could even slow down.

Word in the tribune, unofficially, was that Blake had split 19.0 for his anchor leg, justifying his own speculation at Friday's pre-event press conference. "If I can run 19.2 from a block start," postulated Blake, "Imagine what I could do from a running start."

With the whole race run in lanes, the four-turn stagger didn't unwind fully until halfway through Blake's anchor leg.

Running in lane three, the Jamaicans had their competition laid out in front of them for the whole race, watching not only the fireworks of the second-place St Kitts and Nevis team out in lane eight – second leg Lestrod Roland, who took the baton halfway around the bend due to the extreme stagger, actually swung his left arm over his head as though to ask the rest of the field to get in the race – but also had rivals USA in lane six.

Both teams added a US$50,000 world record bonus to the $50,000 first-place prize.

The final difference between these world records may be their approachability.

Both Jamaica and the USA might be able to put together faster squads for the men's 4x200m – adding a healthy Usain Bolt to the existing Jamaican quartet, for example, and practicing the notoriously tricky exchanges – but it's not a given that both teams would have the available personnel to attempt the record again in the near future.

However, the women's 4x1500m mark even now is only a few seconds faster than the combined 3000m marks of Obiri and Cherono.

Should Kenya choose to chase the mark again, and if the same record bonus is on the line again, then there's no reason they should not reduce it further and by several seconds. A time of between 16:20 and 16:30 would seem to pose little problem to the combined talent of the Kenyan quartet on display in Nassau.

The biggest obstacle to a Kenyan team lowering the record again, in fact, would be competition from an Ethiopian entry, who were sadly absent from the IAAF World Relays on this occasion, missing the opportunity for what could have been a spectacular duel with their Rift Valley rivals.

Parker Morse for the IAAF

*subject to the usual ratification procedures