The Tokyo men’s 400m hurdles is one of the finest events that this writer has witnessed, in person or via TV, in his life. One could not imagine a better field.
David Hunter captures the setting, the demeanor of the athletes, and the actual herculean battle over 400 meters and ten hurdles that totally rewrote the record books.
This is David Hunter’s fifth piece on the 2021 Olympics. We hope you enjoy it!
OG/Day Five: Karsten Warholm’s Unbelievable World Record
The Norwegian’s 45.94 Clocking Shocks All
August 3rd, 2021
In the kaleidoscope of events that take place on the track and in the field at global championships, invariably there are a few – but only a few – select competitions that showcase two athletes who are heading toward a converging athletic collision. These competitions are often long-awaited showdowns to determine who between these exceptional performers is, in fact, the better athlete in the event in question. Think CK Yang vs. Rafer Johnson; Coe vs. Ovett; Smith vs. Evans; Ryun vs. Liquori. The event lead-up can often include a frantic race to see who can be the first to break a long-standing world record. In these Olympic Games, one such marquee event is the men’s 400-meter hurdles and, at last, a highly-anticipated showdown between Norway’s Karsten Warholm, and USA’s Rai Benjamin…
The 25-year-old Kastern Warholm came to Tokyo with a sparkling track resumė: he is the two-time reigning world champion in the 400H having captured gold in London ’17 and Doha ’19. A victor in many Diamond League gatherings, the Norwegian warrior was the 2018 European Champion in the 400H. Undefeated in the 400H in 2021, Warholm came roaring into Tokyo on the heels of his world-record performance in his native land in early July, winning a wire-to-wire Oslo DL 400H race in a global best time of 46.70.
Rai Benjamin entered these Games with impressive credentials of his own The 25-year old hurdler was the runner-up [to Warholm] in the 2019 World Championship 400H final in Doha. The former USC athlete has been a 400H winner in a couple of Diamond League gatherings, including his hurdle victory in the ’21 Doha gathering. Shortly before the Olympic Games, Benjamin rang up a PR 400H win clocking 46.88, tantalizingly close to Kevin Young’s then-world best of 46.83. Benjamin arrived in Japan ranked #3 on the 400H all-time world list.
Track & field aficionados who had been tracking this hurdling duo were ready for the Tokyo showdown. The stage was set. On the day of the final, the sense of excitement was palpable as the finalists, hailed by commentators as comprising “the greatest 400-meter hurdles field ever assembled”, set their blocks. As the pistol sounded, Warholm, as expected, rocketed into an early lead, closely chased by Benjamin. Also out well was Brazil’s Alison dos Santos. Roaring around the final curve and onto the homestretch, Warholm was in full flight. But the American, who had been chipping away at the Norwegian’s lead, was only a stride or two behind and ready for a homestretch dogfight for the gold medal. Swift clearances by Benjamin over hurdles 9 and 10 propelled him nearly even with Warholm. Was Benjamin poised to take the lead? He was, but Warholm would have none of it. Digging deep, Warholm rode a superior run-in to victory. Past the line and catching a quick glance at the infield clock displaying a new world record time of 45.94, the newly-minted gold medalist let out a war-whoop. Benjamin’s 2nd place time of 46.17 also bettered Warholm’s now-broken world record clocking and moves the American up a notch to #2 on the all-time world list. dos Santos made the podium with a 3rd place finish in a time of 46.72 – #4 on the all-time world list, a time that would have been a world record just 5 weeks ago and would have been a gold-medal winning time in every previous Olympic Games. Even 4th place finisher Kyron McMaster [47.08] is now #8 on the all-time world list Warholm’s full-throttle approach in the final had a David Rudisha-like impact on the other finalists as the Norwegian’s blistering attack from the starter’s pistol all the way to the finish line evoked incredible performances from nearly all of the other athletes. 6 of the 8 finalists posted either world, area, or national records.
Let’s put the magnitude of Warholm’s feat in proper perspective. 15 of the 47 Olympic athletes competing in the opening round of the men’s open 400 meters (no hurdles!) at these Olympic Games posted barrier-free finishing times slower than the Norwegian’s new world record. And what about the impressive extent of Warholm’s new world record? In June of 1977, hurdles legend Edwin Moses lowered his 400H world record to 47.45. While subsequent world records followed, it took over 15 years [5531 days] before Kevin Young reduced the world record to 46.78 – a new global best 0.77 seconds faster than the 1977 record performance by Moses – and a record that stood for nearly 29 years. By contrast, Warholm’s current record tear, two world records this summer, has lowered Young’s longstanding world record by 0.84 seconds in a span of only 33 days.
Afterward, the hurdle combatants fielded inquiries from the press. Despite his huge personal best, Rai Benjamin was in tears at the end. “Knowing you want to be the best, this is what it costs.,” declared the disconsolate runner-up. “It’s hard. It hurts. But it is what it is,” said Benjamin with resignation. “Right now I am just full of emotion. I got a medal, but it just hurts to lose.”
The new Olympic gold medalist and world record holder was his animated self in his discussion with the media. “The Olympic gold medal is what everybody talks about and I knew this race was going to be the toughest of my life, but I was ready,” declared Warholm. “It’s by far the biggest moment of my life. It’s just so big. It’s almost like history here,” said the Norwegian victor as he went on to describe his race. “I didn’t touch one hurdle,” said Warholm. “I was even able to find another gear coming home, so ‘wow'”. Before departing, Karsten Warholm explained the emotional journey he has followed as a youngster all the way to Day Five’s magical moment. “I’ve spent thousands of hours thinking about this, I’ve dreamt about it like a maniac. I sleep all night on it.” The winner went on to reveal the even sensed a race day premonition. “I had this special feeling in my chest. You know, when you are nervous. I was just thinking this is the feeling that I had when I was six years old. I’ve never had that feeling since I got older, but yesterday I had it.” Yes, he did. / Dave Hunter /