Intrigue, passion and unpredictability make mixed 4x400m relay a crowd favourite

After a raucous debut at the IAAF World Relays earlier this year, track star Steven Gardiner predicts dancing in the streets of the Bahamas when the mixed 4x400m relay athletes line up at the starting blocks at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

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“It’s going to be awesome because most of the countries are small and don’t have a full relay team, so the mixed relay will give a lot of other countries a chance to win a medal at the Olympics,” the 21-year-old said, adding with a grin, “like The Bahamas.”

He is a man worth listening to. In April, Gardiner was part of the quartet that stormed to gold in front of a home crowd in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) mixed 4x400m World Relays. It was, in many ways, an ideal precursor to the recent addition of the event to the Olympic roster.

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“It was awesome. Most of the time we don’t get to race with the girls. It was a great experience,” Gardiner said with infectious enthusiasm for the inaugural event.

The Bahamian lined up with Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the Olympic Games Rio 2016 400m gold medallist; the 2012 World Junior 100m and 200m champion Anthonique Strachan; and two-time Olympian Michael Mathieu. The first task for the quartet, the essence of which Gardiner acknowledged as key to the event’s attraction, was deciding in which order to run against the powerful USA and Jamaican teams.

“We decided to go male-female-female-male. It was the obvious choice. In my view that is the best way to do it, with the two female athletes in the middle,” said the Rio 2016 men’s 4x400m relay bronze medallist. “It was kind of tricky in that we didn’t know if it was going to be a male or a female on our leg, but it was fun.”

Most of the time we don’t get to race with the girls. It was a great experience. Steven Gardiner - Steven Gardiner

This question is liable to generate huge interest and debate during the run-up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: what exactly is the best order to run in? For the final in the Bahamas, the Jamaicans agreed with Gardiner and put their two male runners either side of their female athletes, but the USA chose a different line-up: male-female-male-female. It led to a magnificent spectacle, the perfect advert for the event.

A blistering exhibition of 400m running from both Gardiner and Miller-Uibo saw the home team open a significant five-second lead over the USA at the halfway point, with the rest of the field trailing well behind. At this point, the differing strategies kicked in. The USA’s Paul Dedewo, a 45.14-second 400m runner at his best, took the baton and chased after Bahamian Anthonique Strachan.

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“It was kind of strange watching. She (Strachan) didn’t have a 50m head-start, so I knew he (Dedewo) was going to catch her. But we never panicked because we knew we were in second and that we had a guy on the anchor,” Gardiner said.

Dedewo duly caught and passed Strachan, but could only give his teammate, Claudia Francis, a three-second lead for the final leg. It was not enough.

“It was pretty exciting watching Michael (Mathieu) chase her (Francis) down and bring us to victory,” Gardiner said.

The several thousand spectators in the packed Thomas A Robinson Stadium in Nassau whole-heartedly agreed with their compatriot. Several commentators later remarked that they’d never heard support quite as vociferous as that which greeted Mathieu down the home straight.

It was kind of tricky in that we didn’t know if it was going to be a male or a female on our leg, but it was fun. Steven Gardiner - Steven Gardiner

“It was one of the best atmospheres, the crowd was awesome. Everybody was so excited,” laughed Gardiner.

After soaking up the vibe in his home stadium and celebrating with teammates he’s barely ever had the opportunity to race with, you can understand why Gardiner thinks adding the event to the Tokyo 2020 programme is a “great idea”.

The Bahamian team is a good example of the type of NOC that will hope to benefit from the event’s Olympic debut. While the Caribbean nation boasts a top-class men’s 4x400m team, which claimed bronze at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the women’s squad failed to make the final in Rio de Janeiro last summer. Put the two squads together, however, and you have genuine gold medal contenders.

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It is no wonder Gardiner, who set a new national 400m record of 44.26 seconds earlier this season, is “very excited” at the prospect.