Both U.S. relay teams on short end of stick

BEIJING - The guys blamed themselves.

The gals said it was no one's fault.

"I'm telling people, the stick had a mind of its own," U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams said after both U.S. 4 x 100 relay teams flubbed the final relay exchange and were eliminated in qualifying heats last night.

That's right, both U.S. relay teams failed to make the medal final - the first time for the men since 1912, the first time for the women since 1948. In the men's relay, Darvis Patton banged the baton off Tyson Gay's forearm. Minutes later, Williams dropped what looked like a perfect handoff from Torri Edwards, as American jaws dropped as well.

You might have heard: It hasn't been a stellar week for U.S. track and field here in China. Gay, the defending world champion in the 100, didn't make it out of his semifinal heat here in Beijing. (He failed to qualify for the 200 at the Olympic trials.) Bernard Lagat, a 1,500 favorite, also failed to make his final. Sanya Richards got only bronze in the 400, Reese Hoffa placed just seventh in the shot put. Lolo Jones was tripped up in her hurdle final Wednesday.

None of it, though, compared to the bizarre one-two punch of last night, which literally happened within minutes of each other.

"It was my fault, I take full blame for it," said Gay, who was added to the relay team 6 days ago after he failed to qualify for the 100. "I felt it hit my hand but I don't think it was in all the way before I grabbed. And then when I went to grab, he had already let go.

"I've never dropped a stick in my life. It's kind of upsetting."

Gay took the bullet, but Patton's handoff was far from clean. Edwards' handoff in the women's race was however, which gave the whole thing one last wrinkle: In 2004, the women's relay team was disqualified after Williams and Marion Jones failed to connect within the handoff zone.

Then, Williams and Jones walked to the finish line in disgust. This time, Williams went back, picked the stick from the ground, and ran to the finish.

"I said I'm not walking around the track," she said. "I am never walking around the track again."

While the baton follies underlined the nightmare this week has been for U.S. track, there was some joy at the end. After Allyson Felix finished a disappointing and distant second to Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown in the 200, LaShawn Merritt beat Jeremy Wariner in their much-anticipated 400 showdown, denying him back-to-back Olympic golds.

"The 400 meters is a race about confidence, heart, intelligence - and you can't back down," Merritt said.

Merritt's win, with a time of 43.75, was surprisingly easy. David Neville's capture of the bronze was not. The U.S. runner literally dove across the finish line, skinning his arms and legs.

"Sometimes you have to make a last-ditch effort," Neville said. "And that's why I have this medal around my neck right now."

The Americans added to their medal count in the race that followed, as David Payne and David Oliver finished a surprising second and third to Cuba's Dayron Robles in the 110 hurdles. That was unexpected, but by then, few were noticing. The talk was of drops and dives, and of a U.S. team that, according to its coach Bubba Thornton, was supposed to be wearing out our national anthem with all their gold at these Games.

"Maybe somebody somewhere has a voodoo doll, and they're sabotaging us," Williams said. "That's all I can think of." *