Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and USA's Trayvon Bromell in 4x100m action at the Olympic Games (© AFP / Getty Images)
There's one certainty in the men's one-lap relay this year: for the first time in recent memory, the first squad across the Olympic 4x100m finish line won't include Usain Bolt. And, with the rise of a new generation of sprinters in most corners of the globe, there's not even a clear favourite.
On paper, the fastest should undoubtedly be the USA who are seeking a 17th Olympic victory in the event.
Individually, no team comes close to this year's US 4x100m relay pool, one that includes three of the world's five fastest men in 2021 - and four of the quickest eight - led by world leader (9.77) and US Trials winner Trayvon Bromell. He'll be joined by Ronnie Baker (9.85), who, like Bromell, has returned from injury as not only a faster sprinter, but a more consistent and confident one as well. Joining them is Fred Kerley, who just a year ago was one of the finest 400m runners on the planet. This year he’s emerged as one of the world's fastest 100m men, improving to 9.86 and finishing third at the notoriously difficult US Trials. Micah Williams, who has clocked 9.91 this year, rounds out the squad.
Fast times are, of course, only half the battle in the sprint relay. The other is getting the baton around one lap of the track and handing off within the confines of the exchange zone. There are plenty of examples that show how US teams in particular have been plagued by botched handoffs in the past, costing not only victories but disqualification as well. That was the case in Rio where they were disqualified for a zone violation but more recently performed exceptionally well to dominate at 2019 World Championships, clocking 37.10 ahead of Great Britain (37.36) and Japan (37.43).
Great Britain remains a perennial medal threat, this year headed by sub-10 men CJ Ujah, Reece Prescod and European 100m champion Zharnel Hughes. They've clocked 38.27 this year but are capable of going considerably faster.
Japan, who were propelled to their second Olympic silver in the event by a 37.60 national record in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, will be under considerable pressure on home soil as they try to capture an elusive Olympic title. The quartet will be led by Ryota Yamagata, a member of the Rio squad, who lowered the national 100m record to 9.95 this year; Yuki Koike, who has a 9.98 best from 2018; and Shuhei Tada, who improved his lifetime best to 10.01 in June.
Japan was third at the World Athletics Relays in May, a competition won by an inspired South African team anchored by African 100m champion Akani Simbine. Just over eight weeks later the 27-year-old broke the African 100m record with a sizzling 9.84 run in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, to further propel his nation's relay medal-winning ambitions.
Others in the medal hunt include Italy, with Lamont Marcell Jacobs (9.95 PB, SB) and Filippo Tortu (9.99 PB) figuring prominently, along with China, whose formidable squad includes Su Bingtian (9.91 PB, 9.98 SB) and Xie Zhenye (9.97 SB, 10.15 SB).
Brazil, the 2019 World Relays winners, clocked a South American record of 37.72 at the 2019 World Championships to finish fourth, and should be a medal favourite as well.
Meanwhile, defending champions Jamaica returns with a relatively low-key squad led by veteran Yohan Blake, a member of the last two Olympic winning relay squads and the only Jamaican to crack 10 seconds in the 100m this year with 9.95. He'll be joined by Nigel Ellis (10.04 PB, SB), Tyquendo Tracey (9.96 PB, 10.00 SB) and Oblique Seville (PB, SB 10.04).
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics
In Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shericka Jackson, the Jamaican squad has the three fastest women entered for the individual 100m and looks to be the team to beat on paper. But of course, things do not always go to the form book in the relays, which is what makes the competition so exciting.
In Rio five years ago there was a second consecutive title for the USA as Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix, English Gardner and Tori Bowie combined to beat Jamaica, 41.01 to 41.36, with Great Britain third in 41.77. In Doha, at the latest edition of the World Athletics Championships, it was Jamaica on top, as Jackson anchored her team to victory in 41.44 ahead of Great Britain (41.85) and the USA (42.10). All three teams could make the podium again this time, although Germany and Switzerland will also be among those on the medal hunt.
The Jamaican team certainly has the individual speed within its squad to regain a title last won by the nation in Athens in 2004. Fraser-Pryce leads the world 100m list with her 10.63 run in Kingston in June – a time which puts her second on the world all-time list. She has also clocked 10.71 this summer and has the benefit of incredible experience, with four world 4x100m wins among the many titles to her name as well as two Olympic relay silver medals.
Defending Olympic 100m and 200m champion Thompson-Herah, meanwhile, has run 10.71 this season, and was on Jamaica’s silver medal-winning Olympic team alongside Fraser-Pryce in 2016, while Olympic and world 400m medallist Jackson is concentrating on the shorter sprints this year and has run 10.77. Morrison (10.87) and Briana Williams (10.97) add further strength to the team.
Gardner is the sole member of the USA’s 2016 team back in action and this time she is joined by Aleia Hobbs, who ran 10.91 in April, plus Javianne Oliver (10.96), Jenna Prandini (11.11) and Teahna Daniels (11.02), who helped the USA to world bronze in Doha. With two sub-11 second sprinters this season and some smooth changeovers, the squad would be looking to challenge for a third consecutive title.
Asha Philip, Desiree Henry, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita broke the British record with 41.77 to claim bronze in Rio and that is one of the three medals the team has won at consecutive recent global championships. World 200m champion Asher-Smith, Philip and Neita are all in the squad along with Ashleigh Nelson, who was part of the silver medal-winning Doha team, and Imani Lansiquot.
Germany and Switzerland both finished just outside the medals at the past two editions of the World Championships, with Germany also fourth in Rio. In Tatjana Pinto and Alexandra Burghardt, Germany’s squad has two of the nation’s four fastest sprinters since the reunification of Germany, while European indoor 60m champion Ajla Del Ponte is running quicker than ever this season and is again joined on the Swiss team by national record-holder Mujinga Kambundji.
One of the stories of this year's World Athletics Relays in Silesia was Ecuador's 4x100m women achieving a first ever Olympic relay place for their nation, with Angela Gabriela Tenorio, Gabriela Anahi Suarez, Virginia Elizabeth Villalba and Marizol Landazuri joined by Yuliana Angulo in their Tokyo squad. In Silesia, where teams including the USA and Jamaica decided not to compete, the women’s 4x100m win was claimed by Italy, ahead of Poland, the Netherlands and Japan, and they will all again be looking to make an impact.
Jess Whittington for World Athletics