01 May, 2017

Mixed relays, hurrah!

I first heard about mixed relays in 1987. But let me give some background first.

While I adore athletics I have been a swimmer for most of my life. My discipline is finswimming and I keep training and even now participating at competitions (for my age group). 

Here's what fiwnswimming looks like

From 1985 till 2001 I was member of the Finswimming commission of the World Confederation for Subaquatic Sports (CMAS; the acronym being based on the french name of the federation). Finswimming is a discipline recognised by the IOC and participating at the World Games. In 1987 we faced a problem at the commission since the International World Games Association had decided to limit the participation per country to 2 male plus 2 female swimmers. This restriction would have had as a consequence to drop the relays from the program. And then the soviet member of the commission made a proposal that I found most original: mixed relays. We did not get to organise those relays since a few weeks later the IWGA upped the participation limit to 4+4 and we went back to a more classic scheme. Still I kept the idea in the back of my mind. Mixed relays made their appearance in finswimming much later where the open water 4x2 km relay became a mixed one. And once classical swimming introduced mixed relays in pool competitions finswimming followed course.

This year, at long last, the IAAF introduced mixed relays in the World Relays competition. The idea is great. The mixed relay was a 4x400 m. Since the order of runners is, obviously, free the possible strategies may vary from team to team. The standard approach is to have men run at the first and fourth relays with women at second and third. That was the strategy adopted by exactly half the finalists. The one adopted by the remaining half was to have men at first and third position and women and second and fourth. I do not know for sure which is best but in any case the fact that different strategies can be used makes for more spectacular and exciting races. If you haven't watched the mixed relay, you can catch it here.

The mixed 4x400 m relay

Just for the fun of it I did a small calculation. I added the times of the men's and women's relays, divided by two and compared it to the time of the mixed relay. Here are the results

half-sum mixed
Bahamas 3:19.89 3:14.62
USA 3:13.25 3:17.29
Jamaica 3:15.68 3:20.26
Poland 3:18.07 3:22.26
Kenya 3:23.74 3:23.79

For three out of five teams the mixed relay did worse than what one would have expected. This is probably due to the effect of cumulative efforts and the accompanying tiredness. Kenya is the only well-balanced team, performing in the mixed relay exactly as one would have predicted. The result of the Bahamas mixed relay is much better than the prediction but then the teams of Bahamas did not make it to the final of the men's and women's events. The women's team opted not to participate at the B final most probably reserving themselves for the mixed event. It seems that the Bahamas put all their eggs in the same basket, the mixed relay one, and that payed out.

Speaking of mixed relays it's the 4x100 m that I would like to see even more than the 4x400 m. The short relay depends crucially on delicately balancing the speeds of the two runners at the exchange of the baton. So, adding the extra difficulty of different top speeds for male and female runners would make this event even more challenging. I cross my fingers for such an event to become part of official competitions. 

Speaking of 4x100 m, enjoy De Grasse 
beating the shit out of Gatlin

The mixed relay came, alas, at a price: the disappearance of the distance medley relay. The latter made a single appearance in the program of the 2015 World relays (replacing most probably the 4x1500 m event). The distance medley was a relay of four different distances: 1200, 400, 800 and 1600 m. In fact medley relays have a long history.  I remember that when I first started interesting myself in Athletics and looked up the greek national records there was one for the swedish relay.  It's a sprint relay with legs of 100, 200, 300 and 400 m. It was part of the program of the, soon to be defunct, U18 World Championships (they will be replaced by continental events after 2017) and it is run from time to time in scandinavian meetings. The swedish relay is not the only sprint medley one. A shorter variation consists in 100, 100, 200 and 400 m legs while the longer one comprises the double distances of the former, namely 200, 200, 400 and 800 m. 

However there exists one variety of medley relay which is famous and frequently run, the Ekiden relay. It originated in Japan and is now part of road events all over the world. There exist many variants of the Ekiden but the classical one is the Ekiden Marathon consisting of legs of 5, 10, 5, 10, 5 and 7.195 km. From 1992 to 1998, ekiden-style, World Road Relay championships were organised by the IAAF. Unfortunately they have gone now the way of the dodo.

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