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For Japan's unlikely silver medalists, teamwork trumps speed

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The dark horses from Japan may have failed to spoil Usain Bolt’s send-off party, but lightening team work helped them pull off a massive shock by upstaging North American sprinting giants to win Olympic silver in the 4x100 meters relay on Friday.

2016 Rio Olympics - Athletics - Final - Men's 4 x 100m Relay Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 19/08/2016. Ryota Yamagata (JPN) of Japan, Shota Iizuka (JPN) of Japan, Aska Cambridge (JPN) of Japan and Yoshihide Kiryu (JPN) of Japan celebrate winning the silver medal. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

On their own, the Japanese sprinters did not stand a chance against the likes of Bolt, American Justin Gatlin or Canada’s Andre De Grasse.

None of the four Japanese men -- Aska Cambridge, Yoshihide Kiryu, Ryota Yamagata and Shota Iizuka -- have run 100m in under 10 seconds, nor got a sniff of an individual Olympic final.

But what they lack in raw speed, they made up for in seamless baton changes on Friday and gelled to break the Asian record with a time of 37.60 seconds.

It was not only the best Japan has done in the event -- they won bronze in Beijing in 2008 -- they also did the unthinkable and beat the U.S. into bronze.

The Americans were then later disqualified for stepping into Bolt’s lane and Canada, led by De Grasse, were promoted into third place.

“This is fantastic. This is really fantastic,” said Aska Cambridge, who has a Jamaican father and a Japanese mother.

The Jamaican-born runner, whose personal best of 10.10 seconds is some way behind Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds, held his own as he brought the Japanese team home.

“I’m really proud to have been part of a team in Japan,” said Cambridge, laughing off suggestions that due to his heritage he should be called ‘Japan’s Bolt’.

Though few fans outside Japan will recognize the faces of the silver medalists, the outgoing Sprint King was not surprised to see Japanese runners hot on his heels.

“Hats off to them,” said Bolt, who won his third 4x100m relay Olympic gold.

“The baton changes are always good and that’s what always helps them, and I think they executed it well today, so I’m not shocked.”

After winning gold, the Jamaicans admitted they had relatively few training sessions for the relay this year and only once with Bolt.

The Japanese team, by comparison, had been working on perfecting their baton handovers since March.

“We’ve been practicing all the time for about six months,” said Iizuka, who ran the second leg. “That’s why we’ve done a pretty good job.”

The sleek baton transfers by Japan are also in stark contrast to problems faced by the U.S., who have been disqualified or bungled handovers eight times in Olympics and world championships since 1995.

They were also disqualified twice more after clinching medals before team members tested positive for drugs.

Editing by Greg Stutchbury