By Gary Kingston
Can the efficient execution of a quartet in smooth relay baton synchronicity overcome a foursome with a decided edge in individual brilliance but less practice time and confidence in the crucial exchange?
It is one of the key questions to be answered during the China-Canada Team Sprint Challenge portion of the Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome International Track Classic June 26-27 at Swangard Stadium.
Athletics Canada named its 21-person team for the Sprint Challenge this week and the advantage in the marquee men’s 100 metres -- one of eight events to be contested -- is pronounced. Triple Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse (9.91 personal best), Aaron Brown (9.96) Bismark Boateng (10.14) and Bolande Ajomale (10.15) all have personal and seasonal bests better than any of the Chinese contingent who will be at Swangard.
But China has proved very adept in the last few years at having runners execute flawlessly in the 4x100 relay. In other words, the Chinese have been more than the sum of their parts.
China won an IAAF Diamond League 4x100 relay last July, two years after a shocking silver medal in the event at the world championships. For Canada, the 4x100 has too often been an event of torment -- disqualifications in the finals of the 2012 Olympics, 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2015 world relays and 2015 Pan Am Games because of either botched handoffs or lane violations.
“You can see how gut wrenching the relay can be,” Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert said last year. “When they make little mistakes there’s no forgiveness and there’s no coming back.”
When it works well, though, it’s a "sweet feeling."
“You want to hand off in a good position and get a clean exchange, a perfect exchange. If you can do that, it’s amazing,” says Gavin Smellie, who ran a personal best 10.01 earlier this year and figures to be a part of the Canadian team in the relay at Swangard.
China won’t have its top two sprinters at Swangard -- Su Bingtian and Xie Zhenye -- but Xu Zhouzheng, Bie Ge and Liang Jinsheng, who will be at the Jerome, were part of a foursome who ran a solid 38.72 in Japan in late May. And those two have been training together in California the last few weeks with the rest of the Chinese squad headed to Burnaby. Canada, minus the injured De Grasse in the usual anchor position, ran a 38.97 in Australia in March.
Meantime, while the hugely popular De Grasse, who was mobbed by young kids after his races at the Jerome in 2016 and 2017, will undoubtedly be the star attraction again, he’s been off to a relatively slow start this season. After taking nine months off from competing when he sustained a hamstring injury at last summer’s IAAF world championships, De Grasse was fourth in the 100 at the Drake Relays this spring in 10.15 in his first race back. He than ran the 200 in Qatar in 20.46 to finish sixth and was eighth in 10.25 seconds in a rain-drenched 100-metre race in Shanghai.
“I still had the speed, but you also need the fitness to hold that speed for 10 seconds or 20 seconds, and I didn’t have that in those races,” De Grasse said in Toronto last weekend. “It’s been a slow start to the season for me, but I’m not panicking. I’m not worried.
“Now, it’s about going back to the drawing board, trying to put it back together again and then go out there and try to win a race.”
On the women’s side at the Jerome, Canadians Khamica Bingham (11.13 PB) and Leya Buchanan (11.17 PB) will be favored in the 100 metres, but Canada’s sprinters -- Leah Walkeden, Farah Jacques and Whitney Rowe are the other women who will be at Swangard -- haven’t run a 4x100 metre relay this season.
The Chinese quartet of Yuan Qiqi, Ge Manqi, Liang Xiaojing and Zhou Yanbing has gone 43.33 and 43.51 so far in 2018.
In the women’s 400, Sage Watson of Medicine Hat, Alta., looks to be the class of the field with a personal best of 51.62 that is two seconds better than any of the Chinese runners. With Aiyanna Stiverne, Alicia Brown and Micha Powell all with PBs under 52 seconds, Canada should be favored in the 4x400 where the baton exchange isn’t as crucial.
Philip Osei, Khamal Stewart-Baynes, Austin Cole and Tremaine Harris comprise the Canadian men’s 400-metre group, but Guo Zhongze has the fastest PB of anyone on the Jerome start list after last year breaking a 16-year-old Chinese record with a time of 45.14.