The 4x100-meter relay is the best race in the Olympics

Nothing beats a 4×100-meter relay, whether it is the relay spring in track or the medley relay in swimming.

There is simply no race that translates better to television, offers the same level of naturally baked-in drama, and simultaneously unites a country quite like the 4×100.

Whether it is track’s blinkless 100-meter sprint, the grinding 800-meter run, or swimming’s 400-meter individual medley, they just don’t compare. Even track’s 4×400-meter relay and swimming’s 4×100-meter freestyle, both of which come in a close second, nevertheless fall short.

The 4×100 wins out every time.

On Saturday night, both American swim teams put the raw elegance of the 4×100 medley relay on display as teams led by Michael Phelps and Simone Manuel took home yet another slew of gold medals for the USA. If the performances were any indication of how the relays will translate to the track, viewers are in for a thrilling pair of finals on Friday, August 19.

The 4×100 shines because it essentially builds a composite super-athlete out of four individuals. No human has ever run the 400m dash under 40 seconds, for example. South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk set a new world record on Sunday with a whooshing 43.03, but that’s still more than six seconds slower than the current 4×100 world record of 36.84, set by the Jamaican sprint team at the 2012 Olympic Games.

The same goes for swimming. The current world record in the 4×100 medley is 3:52:05, a time set by the USA also in London. Lagging more than 30 seconds behind is the 400 individual medley record of 4:26:36, set just this past week by Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú.

Behind these stunning feats is maximal, redlining effort, which viewers are treated to four times in a row. It was exciting to watch USA’s Tianna Madison get off to a strong start in the 4×100 at the 2012 London Olympics, but it was even more thrilling to see Allyson Felix tear down the backstretch into the transition with Bianca Knight, and even more heart-pumping still to see Carmelita Jeter scream down the final 100 to a new world record.

That’s the dual power of the relay. It provides the psychological satisfaction of quick, natural breaks while also delivering a brand-new micro-drama with each leg.

Phelps swam what was perhaps his last race on Saturday as the third leg in the men’s 4×100. Lilly King had come to earn a reputation as the games’ brash rival of Russia’s Yulia Efimova. Manuel became the first female black swimmer to medal in an individual event for the United States in Olympic history, earning a gold no less. At its heart, the 4×100 is a carefully constructed novella, each leg a chapter that spotlights a new character.

But not all relays are created equal. The 4×400 on the track isn’t quite as intense as the 4×100, and while the 4×100 freestyle is speedy, swimming is slower than track. Four minutes of a one-stroke race may be asking too much of viewers. They need variety in both stroke and swimmer.

What these narratives produce, among both in-person spectators and at-home viewers, is a sense of pride. It’s the whole point of the Olympics: Fans can feel proud that members of their country banded together, however briefly, to become one cohesive unit. America fell in love with the Final Five gymnastics squad (in part) because Americans subscribe to the belief that teamwork matters and victories are sweeter shared.

Put that into practice over the course of a moderate-length race, not a week-long series of events or a 10-second flash, and what you end up with is the 4×100 relay — a jittery, mad-dashing event that combines delicious, elite-level competition with an undercurrent of low-level anxiety. Viewers have just enough time to savour the spectacle of one leg before they start to feel the creep of the next inching closer.

But as the anchor finally begins to pull away, cheered on from afar by the other exhausted three and a roaring, anonymous crowd, those tensions subside, and in its place comes a great and rushing awe.

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