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All you need to know about relay races: Rules, history, world records

A team of four runners run equal distances, generally 100m and 400m each, while passing a baton to one another on a rolling start.
By Rahul Venkat

One of the most adrenaline-pumping sights in an athletics event, a relay race is viewed as the ultimate example of teamwork and coordination.

The concept originated in ancient Greece, where a ‘message stick’ was passed along via a number of couriers.

In modern times, a relay race is a track and field event listed in the Olympic Games under the ‘athletics’ programme.

At the Olympics and other World Athletics-sanctioned tournaments, a relay race is an event where a team of four athletes run equal predetermined distances in a sprint race, each passing a rod-like object called the ‘baton’ to the next person to continue the race. The last runner in a relay is called the ‘anchor’.

There are also other types of relays – like sprint medley relays (where each runner runs progressively longer distances like 200m, 400m, 800 metres and so on), long distance relays (which have more than five legs) and cross-country relays. However, they are not part of the Olympic or World Athletics events.

The two relay races in the Olympics are the 4x100m and 4x400m for both men and women and mixed.

4x100m relay

The 4x100m relay is an event where a relay team of four members each run a distance of 100m in a single designated lane.

During each leg run, the athlete has to carry a baton and hand it over to the next team member.

The baton exchange has to happen within a 20m changeover box, located 10m before and 10m after the start of each leg, starting from the second relay runner.

A team can be disqualified if any member drops the baton during the handover or if the handover occurs outside the designated area. The runner finishing the race will generally be the fastest sprinter in a team.

The 4x100m relay was introduced as a men’s only event at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, while the women’s event was first run at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

4x100m relay world records

Men – 36.84 seconds set by Jamaica during London 2012 (Nesta Carter, Michael Frater, Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt)

Women – 40.82 seconds set by United States during London 2012 (Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter)

4x400m relay

The rules for the 4x400m relay are largely similar to the 4x100m relays.

The team members cover a distance of 400m each before passing on the baton to the next team member, within the same 20m designated changeover area.

However, there is one key difference. While the first member runs 400m in a single designated lane, the subsequent members of a team can interchange lanes starting from the back-straight halfway through the second leg.

Generally, 400m runners compete for the inside line, which is the shortest route to the finish line.

The 4x400m relay was also introduced at the Olympics as a men’s-only event at the 1912 Stockholm Games, while the women’s event was first run at Munich 1972.

Tokyo 2020 featured a 4x400m mixed team relay, with two male runners and two female runners. It was the first time that a mixed-gendered race was run at the Olympic Games. Poland's Karol Zalewski, Natalia Kaczmarek, Justyna Święty-Ersetic and Kajetan Duszyński won the maiden gold medal in the event with an Olympic record timing of 3:09.87s.

India qualified for the 4x400m mixed team relay at the Tokyo Olympics, where Mohammad Anas Yahiya, Revathi Veeramani, Subha Venkatesan and Arokia Rajiv exited the event after the heats.

4x400m relay world records

Men – 2:54.29 set by United States during 1993 World Championships (Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds, Michael Johnson)

Women – 3:15.17 set by Soviet Union during Seoul 1988 (Tatyana Ledovskaya, Olga Nazarova, Mariya Pinigina, Olha Bryzhina)

Mixed - 3:09.34 set by United States during 2019 World Championships (Wilbert London, Allyson Felix, Courtney Okolo, Michael Cherry)