TOKYO – Their medal chances had been in peril for hours the night before, and as Gabe Norwood received the baton from Kaylin Whitney, the eight runners and two genders of the inaugural United States 4X400 mixed relay team had to worry about them again. Three had started running before Norwood began his anchor lap. As they all broke new ground, he would have to make up ground.
By the time Norwood neared the end of his lap National Stadium, he had surged past the Dutch and the Dominicans, not quite even with the Polish anchor. One lean at the end cost Norwood and his seven teammates a silver medal, but they had all secured a bronze – the first U.S. track and field medal in what is expected to be a massive haul – in an event that debuted at the Tokyo Olympics, a Games that has sought to brand itself as gender-equal.
One mixed event makes not a dent in the Olympics’ treatment of its female participants, but the American runners found delight in the race’s novelty. On Friday night, Elija Godwin, Lynna Irby, Taylor Manson and Bryce Deadmon survived a scare caused by a race official’s bizarre error. On Saturday, Trevor Stewart, Kendall Ellis, Whitney and Norwood finished in 3 minutes, 10.22 seconds, the fastest U.S. mixed relay in the event’s nascent history.
The Americans almost missed the final despite the qualifying quartet’s dominance in its heat. A race official had instructed Irby to line up in the wrong place, leading to a disqualifying zone violation. The Americans appealed, and late at night when they should have been in the middle of restful sleep, they wondered whether they would race in the final. In the wee hours Sunday morning, officials ruled in their favor.
“We ended up getting our joy back and walking away with some hardware,” Norwood said.
The event could teach other sports a lesson in why not. Tennis and its mixed doubles at Grand Slams has largely cornered the market on mixed events without many competitors trying to un-corner it. A mixed relay made its Olympic swimming debut Saturday, too. Who couldn’t find intrigue in, say, Nelly Korda and Collin Morikawa challenging Inbee Park and Sungjae Im? Beach volleyball could stage a fair fight.
“How good are mixed events in sport?” British tennis star Andy Murray asked on Twitter. “They are a huge asset and so many sports miss a trick not supporting/promoting them more.”
“It’s an event that’s so different from the standard,” Ellis said. “You know, track and field is separated into men and women. It’s nice that we get to come together and put the best of the best from each gender and see what we’ve got.”
“We’re so used to the men format and the women format,” Whitney said. “To be able to have both genders in there, you can really see every country’s wide showcase of talent together. It just adds more excitement to the Games.”
The race provided excitement Saturday. At the second handoff, a collision and a tumble ruined the nights of some Germans and Jamaicans. When Norwood took the handoff, he started out of medal position. He never caught Polish anchor Kajetan Duszynski, who pulled his shirt over his head upon crossing the line and waited for teammates to mob him. But Norwood scooted into second place momentarily, only for Dominican anchor Alexander Ogando to lean just past him at the line.
When the bronze winners walked to the wall of the stands to receive flags, the quarter saw the team from the night before. The foursome congratulated the runners from Saturday night.
“They got us here into the final,” Ellis said. “So it’s just as much their medal as it is ours. It’s an eight-[member] group of us. So we all earned this medal.”
Along with blending genders, the mixed relay could be a field-leveler. The deepest sprinting nations saved their best for the 400 meters and 4X400 relays, but other countries sent out some of their fastest. The Dominican Republic before Saturday night had won only two gold medals and a silver in track and field.
Late Saturday night, as stadium lights glowed and workers packed up equipment, a group of Dominican runners and coaches walked to the track and posed with the track’s Olympic rings behind them. Someone took a picture and captured another slice of novelty.
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