The Golden US Men’s 4×400 Relay Team in Tokyo: A Last-Moment Decision to Ensure Victory

US Men's 4x400 relay team_2
Ulis WIlliams, Henry Carr, Mike Larrabee and Ollan Cassell

The first heat went well. The American 4X400 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics won handily against the Soviet Union and France, finishing a full 2 seconds ahead of the Soviets. Henry Carr led off, followed by Ollan Cassell, Mike Larrabee and Ulis Williams.

Thus, America was favored to take gold. After all, Carr was the gold medalist in the 200 meter finals. Mike Larrabee was the gold medalist in the 400 meter finals. Williams was a finalist and placed fifth in the 400-meter finals, while Cassell nearly qualified for the 400-meter finals.

And yet, Williams was worried. He wasn’t feeling right. He told me that he had run in the LA Times Indoor Track Meet in January of 1964, and had injured himself. “The track was slanted, so I ran in that leaning way you do in indoor tracks and pulled a muscle, right off the bone,” Williams told me. “I really never got back into top shape. I still ran some of my better times, but because I placed fifth in the 400-meter finals the day before, psychologically, I wasn’t sure. I had doubts.”

Williams ran the anchor leg on the team, and in fact had always run the anchor leg in his career. Even at Arizona State University, where he and Carr were teammates on the track team, he had always run anchor. But he was concerned enough to ask the US track coach, Bob Giegengack, to hold a team meeting before the 4X400 relay finals.

“I told the team I was not feeling how I would like to feel, and didn’t feel I was running my best, that I wanted to make sure that we had the best chance to win the gold medal.” In other words, he implied that he might not be the best choice as anchor for the finals and that he would run in any place the coach wanted him to run.

After Williams made that statement, Giegengack asked the others if they had any comments. Williams said that Carr stepped up and said “I don’t care where I run. I am just going to take care of business.” According to Williams, Carr made that statement with such confidence that everyone in the room thought, “With that attitude, you anchor.”

Henry Carr takes 4x400 team to gold_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Henry Carr takes 4×400 team to gold, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

So with the decision to replace Carr with Williams as the anchor, 400-meter champion Larrabee spoke up and said he wanted to run second. According to Williams, it is a common tactic to place your fastest runner second, and so Larrabee thought that he could give a significant lift by building a lead in the first half of the race. With those two decisions, Williams slotted into the third leg, and Cassell took the opening leg.

And the rest is history. Although there was a slight hiccup in one of the exchanges, the Americans won gold in the world record time of 3:00.7 seconds, with Henry Carr blazing to the tape, the team finishing essentially a second faster than the teams from Great Britain and Trinidad and Tobago.