After the U.S. Women’s National Team looked old and slow, after Simone Biles checked out and checked back in, after the U.S basketball team looked like just another team, after a barrage of picnic sports for your viewing pleasure (badminton, canoeing, kayaking, volleyball, archery), after days of empty stadiums, after all that, the Tokyo Games got exactly what it needed — a signature moment.
It was gifted with a moment for the Olympic ages.
Karsten Warholm v. Rai Benjamin, on center stage, in a 400-meter hurdle showdown that had been anticipated for a year and then lived up to its billing.
They didn’t merely set a world record; they obliterated it. Both of them. As one of the talking heads on TV noted, they advanced the event ahead by decades. What they did was Beamonesque. They did to the 400 hurdles what Bob Beamon did to the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, when he took the world record from 27 feet, 4 ¾ inches to 29 feet, 2 ½ inches, skipping right over 28 feet and improving it, not by inches or half-inches, but by nearly 2 feet.
“You have destroyed this event,” a competitor told him afterward.
Warholm, the 25-year-old Norwegian, might have done the same thing to the hurdles. It might be the greatest world record in the books.
At the outset of the season, the world record was 46.78, a mark that was so strong that it stood for 28 years until Warholm broke it last month with a time of 46.70, this just days after Benjamin, a 24-year-old American, ran 46.83.
Track aficionados anticipated a world record in the Olympics, and they were right. After holding off the late-charging Benjamin in a tight homestretch battle, Warholm crossed the finish line in 45.94, a record that is so astounding, so otherworldly, that at first it seemed like a typo when it flashed on the TV screen. That can’t be right.
Let’s put it this way: Warholm would have beaten 23 of the entrants in the 400-meter dash heats — the flat 400-meter dash, the race without hurdles. Warholm beat them with 10 three-foot hurdles in his path. To put it another way: A time of 45.64 qualified for the semifinals of the 400-meter dash.
Since 1972 and the era of electric timing, the record had improved by .18 of a second, then .19, .32, .24 and .08. Warholm took it down by .76 — which is a rout in track and field. His time is from another planet. Until 2018, Young remained the only man to even run under 47 seconds, and then by just .02 of a second.
In the process of his record run, Warholm pulled the entire field to new heights. Benjamin clocked a remarkable time of 46.17. Headline in the Wall Street Journal: “The American Who Set a World Record and Lost.”
Imagine if someone nearly matched Bob Beamon on the same day he soared 29 feet. That’s essentially what happened in Tokyo.
Alison dos Santos, of Brazil, finished third with a time of 46.72, which would have been a world record only weeks earlier, yet he wasn’t even in the same area code when Warholm crossed the finish line.
Kyron McMaster, of the British Virgin Islands, clocked 47.08, and Abderrahman, of Qatar, 47.12 — times that would have won every Olympics except the Games of 1992, when Kevin Young set his long-standing record. They didn’t even win a medal.
The shame is that no one was there to see it. Fans are banned from attending Olympic events in Tokyo because of the pandemic.
The New York Post is already hailing it as a “legendary race.”
Associated Press headline: “Best Race Ever?”
What could challenge it in the history of great races? There was Michael Johnson’s 19.32, but nobody else was even on the TV screen when he reached the finish. There was Wayde Van Niekerk’s astounding 43.03 and Usain Bolt’s 9.58, but, again, they weren’t challenged.
There were the Sebastian Coe-Steve Ovett showdowns of 1980, but, though they were great competitions, the races themselves were tactical and relatively slow. Then there was the thrilling 1,500-meter final in the 2004 Olympics between Hicham El Guerrouj and Bernard Lagat in which they ran in lockstep in the homestretch, but the time was nothing special.
The Warholm-Benjamin race stands alone because it consisted of both a world record (two of them, actually), as well as a dramatic wire-to-wire competition.
Benjamin called it the “best race in Olympic history.” He was as astounded as anyone by the result. “If you would’ve told me that I was going to run 46.1 and lose ... .”
“Sometimes in training, my coaches keep telling me this could be possible with the perfect race,” Warholm said of the 46-second barrier. “But it was hard to imagine it because it’s a big barrier, and it’s something you don’t even dream about.”
It undoubtedly helped that Warholm had a challenger to push him to the record, something others have lacked. Edwin Moses, who won 107 consecutive 400-meter hurdle races in the ’70s and ’80s, never had a challenger. His races were rarely close. He set the world record four times with a best of 47.02 and was well ahead of his time. What would he have done if he had had a rival to push him to the finish line?
Coe and Ovett pushed one another, but usually from a distance; they refused to race each other until championship events forced a showdown. They set a bunch of world records, but in separate competitions. What would they have done if they had gone head-to-head more than a half-dozen times?
Roger Bannister and John Landy pushed each other into the sub-4-minute mile realm in the ’50s.
Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad have pushed each other to three world records in their last three championship meetings — two by Muhammad, one by McLaughlin. They will meet again in Tokyo. They will also be challenged by Dutch woman Femke Bol. It promises to be another grand showdown.