The Rise of Mixed-Gender Relays at the Tokyo Olympics

The Rise of Mixed-Gender Relays at the Tokyo Olympics


TOKYO — After winning bronze in one of the new Olympic events at the Tokyo Games, Alejandra Valencia of Mexico recalled the moment when her partner nearly blew it.

“I just said, ‘It’s OK, you know how to do this!’” she recalled. “And I gave him a little punch.”

Valencia’s partner, Luis Alvarez, had misfired with his first arrow of the second set in mixed team archery. But buoyed in part by Valencia’s pep talk, Alvarez refocused as the Mexicans defeated a two-person team from Turkey and made the medal podium — together.

In Tokyo, more men and women than ever before are teaming up to compete in a series of mixed-gender events that are making their Olympic debuts: relays in track and swimming, mixed pistol and rifle competitions on the shooting range, mixed judo and mixed table tennis.

The most high-profile moments yet for the mixed events occurred on Saturday, with the 4×100-meter medley relay final in swimming and the 4×400-meter relay in track and field.

When the 4×400 mixed relay was added to the Olympic program in 2018, it looked like a sure medal — perhaps even a gold — for the United States, which had lost the men’s version of the Olympic relay only twice since 1984. The U.S. women have won their event every year since 1996.

That record translated into confidence heading into the finals, even if Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track athlete the country has produced — and one of the top quarter-milers in the world — opted not to race in the event. If she had, it might have yielded Felix a world-leading 10th Olympic medal.

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But if the inaugural version of the race proved anything, it was that this event might end up being one of the more unpredictable of the Games. An enormous crash took out Germany and nearly eliminated Jamaica.

By the time Vernon Norwood took the baton from Kaylin Whitney, the United States saddled in fourth place. Norwood motored around the back stretch, and by the time he came off the far turn, he was moving into second place. Poland ended up winning the race, and Alexander Ogando of the Dominican Republic edged Norwood by one-hundredth of a second to take the silver. The United States ended up with bronze.

In all, seven sports added mixed-gender events, which have proved popular among the athletes while helping Olympic officials create the appearance of greater gender equality, a thorny topic at the Games for decades.

“The mixed events are really important to us because I think they embody the equality of male and female athletes on the field of play,” said Kit McConnell, the sports director of the International Olympic Committee. “In some ways, there’s nothing more equal than a male and female competing as one team on the same field of play.”

On Saturday, the Olympics also unveiled the triathlon mixed relay, as teams of four — two men, two women — went head-to-head. Each athlete had to swim 300 meters, bicycle 6.8 kilometers and then run 2 kilometers before tapping the hand of a teammate to begin their leg of the relay. The United States came away with silver. It was the second medal of the Games for Katie Zaferes, who won bronze in the women’s individual race.

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“Having the camaraderie and racing as a team just gives you so much energy, and it makes it even more significant,” Zaferes said. “When you race for yourself, it’s one thing. But when other people are relying on you, it’s a whole other feeling.”

A couple of hours later, there was chaos in the pool as swimming staged the final of the 4×100-meter mixed medley. The race requires two men and two women to swim 100-meter legs of the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle — in that order. But each country can decide who swims which stroke, no matter the gender, making the race a mathematical and tactical calculation.

“I love the strategy,” said Duncan Scott, who has won three medals for Britain at the Tokyo Games.

On Saturday, the race’s unique configuration meant that Lydia Jacoby, the gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, wound up swimming the second leg for the U.S. against Adam Peaty of Britain, the men’s world-record holder. Caeleb Dressel, the men’s 100-meter freestyle champion, later anchored the Americans by trying to swim down three women but was too far behind and was slowed by rough water that churned in front of him. The U.S. finished fifth, three seconds behind Britain, whose relay team set a world record.

There is often a learning curve for those involved in new events — and that apparently includes track and field officials. On Friday, in a qualifying round of the 4×400-meter mixed relay, the U.S. team was briefly disqualified for handing off the baton outside of the exchange zone between the first and second legs. After an appeal, the team was reinstated when it was determined that a race official had lined up Lynna Irby, one of the American runners, in the wrong spot.

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The final is Saturday. Like swimming, each team can chose when men and women run, making the event especially engaging for viewers who must try to keep track of who has a tactical advantage. Every team in the final had women racing second and third and men leading off and anchoring.

Of the nearly 11,000 athletes competing in Tokyo, about 49 percent are women, according to the I.O.C., a significant increase from previous Games. The committee itself, though, remains overwhelmingly male, with women making up just a third of its executive board.