What is the new athletics mixed relay event?

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Competitors hand off the baton while competing in the 4x400 Relay Mixed Round 1 on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Competitors hand off the baton while competing in the 4x400 Relay Mixed Round 1 on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The 4x400m mixed relay has made its debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, but do you know what's involved? We take a look at the new and exciting addition to the Olympic programme.

The 4x400m mixed relay is the newest addition to the athletics programme at Tokyo 2020.

There was a huge shock in the heats on Friday (30 July) as the USA, after crossing the line first in the opening heat, were disqualified for a baton change outside the designated zone.

However, USA appealed the decision claiming that an official had put their number two runner Lynna Irby at the wrong exchange and have been reinstated for Saturday's final.

In that heat, Nigeria adopted a different strategy to the rest of the field with Samson Nathaniel going out into a big lead on the third leg against female runners.

But Patience George was caught by the men on the anchor leg with the Africans eventually finishing in sixth place and missing out on the final.

Poland and the Netherlands went faster than the Americans in heat two, with the Poles setting a new European record of 3:10.44.

The new format caught the imagination of a global public at the Doha 2019 Athletics World Championships, as 16 teams each made up of two women and two men battled for victory in the sweltering Qatari heat.

That competition saw a USA team made up of Wilbert London, Allyson Felix, Courtney Okoloa and Michael Cherry crowned champions in a world record time of 3:09:34. It was more than just a battle of speed, as tactics came to the fore as a fascinating competition unfolded.

What's involved in the mixed relay event?

The mixed relay entails teams of four athletes - two women and two men - racing against each other, with each athlete running once around the track before the next person on their team begins their run. Individual teams can decide for their athletes to run in any order they prefer, with two men followed by two women, vice versa or even alternating male and female athletes.

Tactics are an important aspect of the race, keeping in mind that male Olympians are on average six seconds faster than their female counterparts. It allows for a range of different race strategies that can leave the crowd on the edge of their seats until the very last seconds of the race.

The final of the Tokyo 2020 mixed relay event takes place in the Olympic Stadium on 31 July 2021.

The history of the 4x400m mixed relay

The new 4x400m relay race format was first trialed at the 2017 World Relays in Nassau but it wasn't until the 2019 World Championships in Doha that the event really began to grow in popularity.

In Doha, the audience was treated to a fascinating mixture of strategies, as teams set out to gain an advantage over their opponents. While most nations opted for a male first runner followed by two women and a male anchor, that wasn't always the case. Poland decided to begin the race with two male runners and stormed into a lead that they only relinquished on the final lap, as Justyna Swiety-Ersetic finally succumbed to the pressure of the chasing athletes, settling for fifth place.

That year's final was eventually won by the USA in a new world record time of 3:09.34, a full three seconds faster than the previous world's best mark the same nation had set only a day earlier. It also saw history being made for another reason, as legendary sprinter Allyson Felix beat Usain Bolt's record for the most-ever world titles with the 12th gold medal of her career.

At the 2021 World Athletics Relays competition in Poland, there were some notable teams missing including the world record holders, the USA. However, it left the door open for other teams to show their credentials for Tokyo 2020, including winners Italy, second-place Brazil and bronze medallists Dominican Republic.

We need to establish a strategy taking into account the quality of athletes that we have.

And we need to imagine the order our opponents will choose and find a solution to that.

What the athletes have to say about the event

Tokyo 2020 caught up with Belgian brothers Dylan, Jonathan and Kevin Borlee to ask their opinions on the 4x400m mixed relay.

In the eyes of Kevin, the 2011 World Championship 400m bronze medallist, the relay opens the door for countries who otherwise may not have had the number of athletes required to win traditional relay events: "It gives more opportunities to more countries," he explained. "With the mixed relay, with only two men and two women, you can create an Olympic team, while with the traditional relays you need at least four athletes of the same gender."

Their father, Jacques, who coaches the talented siblings, feels the event allows for new and varied strategies that could swing the momentum of the race: "We need to establish a strategy taking into account the quality of athletes that we have," he said. "And we need to imagine the order our opponents will choose and find a solution to that. It's always a tough choice which requires a lot of thought."

Dylan is equally excited about the tactical strategies teams could put in place, turning his thoughts back to Poland's performance at Doha 2019 where they bucked the traditional running order of man, woman, woman, man. "Poland were sensational," he remembered. "During the second relay we saw Rafał Omelko overtaking Allyson Felix so quickly... I remember that image, it was so special."

But for brother Jonathan, no matter how heroically Poland performed that day, it's difficult to know whether the choices they made paid off: "The problem with those strategies is that teams who choose two men to run first [such as Poland] will be leading the race on their own... If the Polish would had chosen another strategy, they may have gained those hundredths of a second they needed to reach the podium. But well, it’s easy to talk in hindsight…"

DOHA, QATAR - SEPTEMBER 29:  Martyn Rooney of Great Britain receives the baton from Emily Diamond as fellow competitors wait at the changeover in the 4x400 Metres Mixed Relay during day three of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
DOHA, QATAR - SEPTEMBER 29: Martyn Rooney of Great Britain receives the baton from Emily Diamond as fellow competitors wait at the changeover in the 4x400 Metres Mixed Relay during day three of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Teams to watch out for

One of the most exciting things about a new event making its debut is the sense of unknown - particularly when it comes to predictions for the winners.

In Doha, the USA were followed home by Jamaica and Bahrain, who did not send a team to Tokyo, with Great Britain fourth.

With such an embarrassment of riches at 400m, USA were able to pick four runners who won't be taking part in the individual 400m. But it was Poland who were the fastest qualifiers with Iga Baumgart-Witan the only one of the quartet running the individual event in Tokyo.