Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo

Ulis Williams stumbles in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Ulis Williams stumbles handing off the baton to Henry Carr in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

The baton hand off in relay races are critical. The slightest misplay and you lose. The US 4X100 relay team in Rome, which had the fastest time in the finals, was disqualified because of a mis-timed hand off between two runners.

So when you see a picture like the one above, you can imagine only disaster. American Ulis Williams was handing off to anchor Henry Carr in the finals of the 4X400 relay race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Ulis told me, he saw his closest competition fall in behind Williams to get the inside lane. That’s when Williams put on the jets around the curve approaching the exchange lane where the anchor awaited.

“I put on the speed and got five or six yards on him,” Williams explained to me. “Henry (Carr) took off, but he didn’t take off fast enough. He was too close on my approach, and I didn’t want to spike him. I took a chance and leaned forward to give him the baton, so I took a short step, didn’t plant my lead foot. I concentrated so much on handing him the baton that I slammed hard into the ground.”

It was a scary moment for lead runner, Ollan Cassell. “I dragged Ulis off because I didn’t want him to get a DQ for interference.” Williams said he tore the skin right off his upper thigh, but all he remembers is celebrating with his teammates at the finish line.

Carr successfully took the baton, and jetted to victory in the world record time of 3:00:07 minutes.

From Life Magazine, October 30, 1964
Ollan Cassel hands the baton to Mike Larrabee, who hands it to Ulis WIlliams. From Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

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