How it works
Four sprinters, in the same designated lane, each run 100m to complete a lap of the track. During their individual legs they have to carry a baton that must be passed to the next runner within a 20m changeover box that’s situated 10m before and 10m after the start of each subsequent leg. The outgoing runner usually runs at full speed with an arm stretched out behind in order to receive the baton. Failure to adhere to the baton-changing rules results in a team’s disqualification. Slick handovers can compensate for a lack of basic speed – but dropping the baton is a regular occurrence.
The first team across the finish line, baton in hand, wins.
Though the concept can be traced to Ancient Greece, where a ‘message stick’ was delivered via a series of couriers, modern relays emulate the charity races organised by the New York fire service in the 1880s, in which red pennants were handed over every 300 yards.
The first Olympic relay took place in 1908 – but was split into two legs of 200m, followed by one of 400m and another of 800m. The first Olympic 4x100m relay for men was held in 1912; the first for women was held in 1928.
Did you know
When Usain Bolt ran the final leg for Jamaica at the 2012 Olympics, his final 100m – with a rolling start – was timed at 8.70 seconds.
The USA has traditionally dominated the men’s event. Between 1920 and 1976 American men won all but one Olympic title – an impressive record for an event where mistakes are common. USA also holds the women’s world record at 40.82. But on the men’s side in recent years it is Jamaica who have rewritten the record books, becoming the first team in history to break 37 seconds.