De Grasse, teammates look to continue winning ways at IAAF World Relays

This weekend's IAAF World Relays is a time for ardent track fans "to gather and salivate" about the upcoming season, says former Olympic relay champion Donovan Bailey.

But it's all business for 23 Canadian athletes and 12 Olympians — including Andre De Grasse, a three-time medallist at last summer's Rio Games — as the third annual event in Nassau, Bahamas serves as a qualifier for this summer's world championships in London.

Canada will field teams in the men's and women's 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400. The top eight teams in the 4x100 and 4x400 will automatically qualify for the worlds.

De Grasse ran the anchor leg to Olympic bronze with Brendon Rodney, Aaron Brown and Akeem Haynes last August in Brazil. This time, Bolade Ajomale will serve as an alternate for a squad that ran a world-leading 38.15 seconds to claim gold in the 4x100 metres at the Florida Relays earlier this month.

De Grasse and company set a Canadian record of 37.64 seconds in Rio, lowering the mark of 37.69 set in Atlanta for 1996's Olympic gold-medal win by Bailey, Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert and Bruny Surin.

"Since I retired [in 2001] this is the first time Canadians, including myself, are excited because we have a couple of horses in the race," Bailey, now a CBC Sports track analyst, said earlier this week. "I'm looking forward to what Andre [De Grasse] and Aaron [Brown] and the rest of the [men's relay team] are going to do this year."

At the recent Florida Relays in Gainseville, Gavin Smellie filled in for Haynes in the 4x200, which the Canadians won in 1:19.91.

If they remain in top form, De Grasse, Brown, Haynes and Rodney probably stand a good chance to medal at 15,000-seat Thomas A. Robinson Stadium this weekend.

The United States team that scored a decisive 4x100 victory over arch-rival Jamaica two years ago at the world relays will be a contender, while a Jamaican outfit that won the 2016 Olympic title with ease looks vulnerable with Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell not competing.

Bolt, an eight-time Olympic medallist, made himself unavailable for the world relays and Powell's handlers announced his withdrawal from the event on Thursday — a strategic decision, according to his publicist Tara Playfair-Scott.

"We're just being selective in what he runs," said Playfair-Scott of Powell, the two-time world 100m bronze medallist. "He has Doha [Diamond League meet] next week."

Leshon Collins, who will run the first leg for the Americans starting in the heats at 7:50 p.m. on Saturday, is coached by nine-time Olympic champion Carl Lewis, whom Bailey included this week in his all-time relay team. Lewis, who twice carried the U.S. to 4x100 gold at the Olympics, is a full-time assistant coach at the University of Houston.

Mixed 4x400 makes debut

The Canadian women's team in the Bahamas features Olympians Crystal Emmanuel, Farah Jacques, Carline Muir, Alicia Brown and Noelle Montcalm.

There will also be a 4x800 race for men and women and, for the first time, a mixed-gender 4x400 at the world relays, the biggest sporting event ever held in the Bahamas.

A total prize purse of $1.26 million US will be paid by the International Association of Athletics Associations for the men's and women's races this weekend. Any team that establishes a world record will receive $50,000, with the world relays having already witnessed five world record-breaking performances in its first three years.

Races to watch

Here are two more events to keep an eye on:

Women's 4x200 (final at 10:21 pm ET Saturday)

Many believe this race will be a showdown in the ongoing U.S./Jamaica rivalry. Elaine Thompson, who emerged as the new sprint queen last season with Olympic victories in the 100 and 200, will try to guide the Jamaicans to their first world relay title in the 200.

The Americans boast a strong squad that will be looking to redeem itself following last year's disqualification for botched baton exchanges. Leading the way is English Gardner, who was part of the victorious Olympic 4x100 team and a finalist in the 100 metres in Rio. The U.S. won the 4x200 at the world relays in 2014.

Men's 4x400 (final at 9:56 p.m. Sunday)

The U.S., led by LaShawn Merritt running the anchor leg, will attempt to win its third gold medal in as many world relays. The Olympic 400 bronze medallist, who has run as fast as 20.42 seconds this season in the 400, will be joined by Tony McQuay, Gil Roberts, Kyle Clemons, Paul Dedewo and Arman Hall.

The Bahamians have trailed only the Americans at the past two world relays. Team member Steven Gardiner enters the event brimming with confidence after clocking a blistering 44.26 in the men's 400 at the recent Grenada Invitational. Rounding out the team is Michael Mathieu, Andretti Bain, Elroy McBride and Ashley.

Team Canada

Men

- 4x100/200: Bolade Ajomale, Aaron Brown, Andre De Grasse, Akeem Haynes, Segun Makinde, Brendon Rodney, Gavin Smellie

- 4x400: Ben Ayesu-Attah, Rayshaun Franklin, Daniel Harper, Philip Osei, Graeme Thompson

Women

- 4x100/200: Shai-Anne Davis, Crystal Emmanuel, Isatu Fofanah, Shaina Harrison, Farah Jacques, Whitney Rowe

- 4x400: Kelsey Balkwill, Carline Muir, Noelle Montcalm, Audrey Jean-Baptiste, Alicia Brown.