The American men’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics broke the world record, and won the gold medal. A more apt description is that Bob Hayes won the team the gold medal. His historic anchor leg took the American team from 5th to 1st in arguably the fastest 100-meter leg in 4×100 relay history.
As Rich Stebbins said, “The good lord gave Bob Hayes something most people don’t have. Pure unadulterated speed.”
And yet, it is a team event. Four sprinters have to circle the track and transfer the baton successfully three times in stride in order to have a chance. Stebbins knew this. He was a member of Grambling State University’s dominant 4×100 championship team, which had a 18-match stretch where they were one or two tenths off the world record. “The secret was we had exquisite exchanges. We would walk around campus handing the baton off.”
The American relay team was in a bit of a pickle. Mel Pender and Trent Jackson were speedsters who got injured during the individual 100-meter sprint competition, so were unavailable for the relay. Paul Drayton was available but had to run with a pulled muscle in his leg. So when the coaches and sprinters gathered to discuss the make up of the team, Stebbins said Hayes looked at him explaining that Stebbins was the best relay runner in the country, and said, “He third, I’m anchor, and I don’t care who else.”
Stebbins was very confident in his hand-offs and could do so with either his left or right hand, and so when Hayes told him he wanted the baton in his right hand, Stebbins made the exchange with his left. Hayes is so fast that he almost outran Stebbin’s hand-off. But the baton landed firmly in Hayes’ right palm, and off he went, racing into history.
Fifty two years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stebbins saw on his television a team that reminded him of the importance of great baton passing. “The Japanese team that won silver – their passing was exquisite.”
Jocelyn Delecour was a trash talker. The anchor man on France’s 4×100 relay team, told Paul Drayton on the American squad that the American team at the Tokyo Olympics wasn’t so good this year. “The only good man you have is Bob Hayes,” said Delecour.
It was pretty arrogant of Delecour to diss Drayton, who captured the silver medal in the 200 meters only a few days before. But the truth of the matter was, the men’s relay team was in disarray. Both Mel Pender, who ran in the 100-meter finals, and Trent Jackson who made it to the semi-finals, were both injured and unavailable, as explained in this post.
Fortunately, substitutions were allowed, so joining Hayes and Gerry Ashworth were Drayton, who had pulled a muscle during the 200-meter finals, and Dick Stebbins, who was another 200-meter sprinter, and fortunately, healthy and ready to run.
When Bob Hayes won the 100-meter finals on October 15, the men’s relay team had to be cobbled together, according to Hayes in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run. Running is one thing, but passing the baton requires precision timing and coordination, which often comes from weeks if not months of practice. Hayes’ team had five days. When Delecour watched the American practice, he was not impressed.
The entire 4×100 competition consisted of three rounds. In the first round, when Stebbins handed the baton to the anchor, Hayes was able to make up the yard he was behind, and finish ahead of the German team, for an overall time of 39.8. Despite the high expectations for the Americans, they could not surpass the World record or even the Olympic record.
Later that day, the American team faced off against the French in the semi-finals. When Hayes received the baton, he was behind again, this time two yards to Delecour. But no matter – Hayes turned on the jets and blew past the French sprinter, setting a team time of 39.5 seconds, which at least matched the Olympic record.
The finals of the 4×100 relay was the next day, October 21. When Hayes ran the individual 100-meter sprint a few days earlier, he ended up in lane one, which was so chewed up by race walkers who had just left the stadium that Hayes fumed at his unfortunate luck. This time, the American’s got lane seven. Psychologically, the Americans needed every break they could get. The pain in Drayton’s leg was bad, and he told his teammates, “Guys, if my leg holds up, I’ll just give you everything I have.”
When the gun went off, Drayton ran the first curve, falling two yards behind the Polish relay team when the baton was passed to Ashworth. The Dartmouth student ran the straightaway effectively, but the baton exchange between Ashworth and Stebbins was not so effective. When Stebbins finally accelerated out of the passing lane, the Americans were in fifth!
Stebbins, who like Hayes, had a career in the NFL, ran a strong leg around the second curve. For whatever reason, Stebbins handed the baton to Hayes towards the beginning of the handoff lane, which meant Hayes had nearly ten more meters to run. But if you’re going to have anyone run an extra ten, it should be the fastest man in the world.
When Hayes received the baton, he was behind half the field. But within 30 meters of the anchor leg, Hayes had flown past the Jamaicans, the Russians and the Poles. Another 30 meters later, he blew past Delecour. When Hayes broke the tape, he threw the baton wildly into the air. The Americans set a world record of 39 seconds flat.
The people who witnessed that race say Hayes’ leg was the fastest anyone had ever run. Even today, people debate whether Hayes’ split in the 4×100 in Tokyo was the fastest ever. Some told Hayes he ran 8.4. Others said 8.6. According to this article in speedendurance.com, Hayes’ time was the fastest split with a running start ever:
1.8.5 (hand time), Bob Hayes, 1964 Tokyo Olympics
2.8.85, Carl Lewis, 1992 Barcelona Olympics
3.8.71, Usain Bolt, 2010 Penn Relays
4.8.70, Asafa Powell, 2008 Beijing Olympics
5.8.70, Usain Bolt, 2012 London Olympics
And Hayes did it on a cinder track, not the synthetic tracks of today that likely play significantly faster than the tracks of 1964.
As Stebbins said in this Sports Illustrated article, “On my last steps, I was really moving — and Hayes only was in his 12th or 13th stride. But I could feel the force of him about to explode. One more step and he’d had been out of my reach. In 10 yards, he was going as fast as I was after 110. He (Hayes) ran that final 110 yards in 8.4 seconds. Unbelievable. He made up all the distance and won going away. Just to have won under the circumstances would have been superb. But to annihilate ’em was out of the question.”
Gold medalist Drayton walked into the waiting area, the spot before going onto the field where the winners would get their medals. When Drayton spotted the French team, which finished second, he walked up to the captain, and said, “Mr. Delecour, I tried to tell you that Bob Hayes was all we needed.”