Olympic Sprint and Relay Rules

Rules for 100-, 200- and 400-meter events

Olympic Relays
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Rules for the three individual sprint events (100, 200 and 400 meters) contain only slight differences. The relay races (4 x 100 and 4 x 400 meters) have additional rules regarding baton passing. Rules for each event are the same for men and women.


The relay baton is a smooth, hollow, one-piece tube made of wood, metal or any other rigid material. It measures between 28-30 centimeters long, and between 12-13 centimeters in circumference.

The baton must weigh at least 50 grams.

The Competition

All Olympic sprint and relay events include eight runners, or eight teams, in the final. Depending on the number of entries, individual sprint events include two or three preliminary rounds before the final. In 2004, the 100- and 200-meter events included one round of preliminary heats followed by quarterfinal and semifinal rounds prior to the final. The 400 included one round of preliminary heats plus a semifinal round.

Sixteen teams qualify for the Olympic 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays. Eight teams are eliminated in the opening round heats while the other eight advance to the final.

The Start

Runners in the individual sprints, plus the leadoff relay runners, begin in starting blocks. The other relay runners begin on their feet when they receive the baton in the passing zone.

In all sprint events, the starter will announce, “On your marks,” and then, “Set.” At the “set” command runners must have both hands and at least one knee touching the ground and both feet in the starting blocks.

Their hands must be behind the start line.

The race begins with the opening gun. Runners are permitted only one false start and are disqualified for a second false start.

The Race

The 100-meter race is run on a straightaway and all runners must remain in their lanes. As in all races, the event ends when a runner’s torso (not the head, arm or leg) crosses the finish line.

In the 200- and 400-meter runs, plus the 4 x 100 relay, competitors again remain in their lanes, but the start is staggered to account for the curvature of the track.

In the 4 x 400 relay, only the first runner remains in the same lane for the full lap. After receiving the baton, the second runner may leave his/her lane after the first turn. The third and fourth runners are assigned lanes based on the position of the team’s previous runner when he/she is halfway around the track.

Relay Rules

The baton can only be passed within the exchange zone, which is 20 meters long. Exchanges made outside the zone – based on the position of the baton, not either runners’ foot – result in disqualification. Passers must remain in their lanes after the pass to avoid blocking other runners.

The baton must be carried by hand. If it’s dropped the runner can leave the lane to retrieve the baton as long as the recovery doesn’t lessen his/her total running distance. Runners may not wear gloves or place substances on their hands in order to obtain a better grip of the baton.

Any athlete entered in the Olympics may compete on a country’s relay team. However, once a relay team begins competition, only two additional athletes may be used as substitutes in later heats or the final.

For practical purposes, therefore, a relay team includes a maximum of six runners – the four who run in the first heat and a maximum of two substitutes.