RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers were almost through parading the American flag around the track — celebrating a bronze medal of all things — when their names flashed on the big board, along with two letters: "DQ."
The smiles — gone.
Those medals — might be gone, too.
This nightmare — it never ends for the U.S. men in sprint relays.
Rodgers and Gatlin were ruled to have passed the baton before the start of the first passing zone in the men's 4x100 relay won Friday night by Usain Bolt and Jamaica. After the disqualification, the bronze went to Canada.
Tyson Bromell ran the anchor leg and finished third behind Jamaica and surprising Japan. The American fell over the finish line and was nursing his injured foot while his teammates celebrated what they thought was a bronze medal, which would have been considered a debacle all of its own back in the day.
At this point, they'd take it.
The U.S. protested the call. A decision is expected later Saturday morning. If the disqualification holds up, it will mark the ninth time since 1995 that the U.S. men have somehow botched the relay at a world championship or Olympics.
"It's always something weird, stupid, simple mistakes that always cost us and I don't understand," said Gay, who cost the U.S. another medal, its silver from the London Olympics, because of a doping positive. "We had great sticks in practice, great everything and something so simple — I can't say anything but bad luck."
Video replays show a clean handoff from Rodgers to Gatlin, but are less clear about whether Gatlin had taken possession of the stick before Rodgers got it inside the start of the 20-meter passing zone.
Rule 170.07 in the track and field handbook reads: "The baton shall be passed within the takeover zone. The passing of the baton commences when it is first touched by the receiving athlete and is completed the moment it is in the hand of only the receiving athlete. In relation to the takeover zone, it is only the position of the baton which is decisive. Passing of the baton outside the takeover zone shall result in disqualification."
Hours earlier, down on the track, the runners huddled around a TV monitor and nodded their heads when they saw the replay.
"It was the twilight zone. It was a nightmare," said Gatlin, who won silver in the 100 sprint, but didn't make the final of the 200 and could go home empty in the relay, as well. "You work so hard with your teammates, guys you compete against almost all year long. All that hard work just crumbles."
All those miscues for the country with arguably the deepest pool of sprinting talent, even with Bolt in the mix, has cost them medals and sent the team back to the drawing board time and again.
Dennis Mitchell, who won the relay gold at the Barcelona Games but also has a doping past, is the current coach. Whatever he was teaching didn't quite hold up.
And this time, the way the Americans received the news was especially cruel.
"Hell, we already did a victory lap," Gay said. "Right before we were about to talk to TV, they told us."