TOKYO — Among track and field fans, the two most anticipated races of these Tokyo Olympics were the 400 meter hurdles, both men's and women's. Both have incredible athletes, great rivalries, and the chance for the world record to be broken.
On Tuesday morning here, the men's hurdlers got the first crack at seeing if anticipation and reality would meet.
And holy cow did it ever.
Norway's Karsten Warholm, who had shaved eight one-hundreths of a second off the world record on July 1, and the United States' Rai Benjamin ran a race for the ages. Warholm shattered his previous record, running a stunning 45.94 seconds for gold, and Benjamin ran an incredible 46.17.
The bronze medalist, Brazil's Alison dos Santos, finished in 46.72.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) August 3, 2021
When the race began, the world record was 46.70. On June 30, the day before the first time Warholm claimed it the first time, it was 46.78. And that number, by American Kevin Young at the Barcelona Olympics, had stood for nearly 30 years.
"I think ... no, that was the best race in Olympic history," Benjamin said. "Three guys pretty much broke the world record and 45.9, man. 46.1. And lost. Nature of the beast."
In a sport where improvement is so often measured in such small increments — tenths of a second, hundredths of a second, centimeters — seeing a world record at the 400m distance lowered by three-quarters of a second is gobsmacking.
Consider: In the men's flat 400m opening round on Sunday, 17 of the 47 competitors ran slower than Warholm did, and he had 10 barriers in his path.
"I knew that with my fast opening, I was up on the side of dos Santos and [Abderrahman] Samba really early in the race. I knew that was a hard opening, and that was my tactic," Warholm said. "I think I really went out hard and tried to get the guys to go with me on a really, really tough race. I was trying to stress them, and I think I succeeded with that.
"I didn't expect to go past Samba and dos Santos so early, and then I knew it was a good opening. I knew that I had really gotten them out to probably a place they didn't want to be. I didn't want to be there myself because it hurts, but then I changed it up to 15 steps [instead of his usual 13] between hurdle 9 and 10 and that's because when you have an opening like that, to do 13 steps it takes a lot of patience on the ground, and when you're stressed and you're behind, you don't tend to give yourself that patience.
"After that I just run for my life. I would have died for that gold medal today."
Benjamin said he felt he was in the race for the first three hurdles but then had to alter his stride a bit into hurdle 4, which impacted his approach for hurdle 5, and that may have made all the difference.
"When you get to an event like this, you cannot manage to make mistakes like that because it costs you so much." he said. "It’s a lot to process. It’s a lot of things that I could have done differently, but at the same time how could you know? Never ran that fast before, so it’s just a matter of experience I would say.
"But if you would have told me I was going to run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up. And tell you to get out my room. But I’m happy to be part of history."
Benjamin said he and Warholm are friendly, with Warholm telling him before their semifinal heat, "Let's go out there and have fun."
Now silver medalist to Warholm in the last two global events — the 2019 World Championships and now the Olympics — it didn't take long for Benjamin to look toward their next major meeting.
"2022, man — Oregon," Benjamin said. "Going to be home, that'll be great, it's my backyard [Benjamin trains in California], and then we're in Paris for '24, so I'm excited for the next couple years to come."
Benjamin had nothing but respect for Warholm.
"The kid’s amazing, man. You can’t be mad at that at all. As a competitor it hurts a lot, but that’s just the nature of the sport," Benjamin said.
There has been talk about the track here, and whether its composition has been helping runners get faster times. Warholm said he loves the track, but wasn't about to cede his achievement to a surface.
"It's a very great track, but I think it's not just the track, I think it was the guys that were out there today," he said.
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