Did Sydney McLaughlin just become the greatest female track athlete of all time?
A closer look at U.S. hurdler’s jaw-dropping record-breaking performance Friday night at the world championships
Once in a while, without warning, a generational talent comes along in sports. Jesse Owens. Michael Jordan. Jim Brown. Jim Ryun. Tiger Woods. Wayne Gretzky.
Now there’s another one: Sydney McLaughlin.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and call her the greatest female talent in track and field.
Don’t take this wrong, PC police: She runs like a man — that is, she runs with the power of a DI collegiate male. She generates so much power with each foot strike that she doesn’t have to work as hard as her rivals, which is why she runs so effortlessly and gracefully and possesses such remarkable speed endurance. It’s like watching a deer bound around the track. There’s never been anyone like her.
On Friday evening, McLaughlin, the 22-year-old American, did something astounding. She didn’t just win the 400 hurdles at the world championships; she set a world record. And she didn’t just set a world record; she set one from decades in the future. If then.
Last year McLaughlin became the first ever to break 52 seconds. On Friday she became the first to break 51 seconds and she crushed it. Her time was 50.68.
She did to the hurdles what Bob Beamon did to the long jump, and she wasn’t surprised.
“Honestly, we thought we’d be able to go a little bit faster,” she told NBC afterward, referring to herself and coach Bob Kersee. “But we’re super grateful for that time. Anything under 51 was a win for us. We just know there’s more to push and there’s more to be taken off of that.”
Until last year the record was 52.16. Since then McLaughlin has broken it four times — 51.90 to 51.46 to 51.41 to 50.68.
Let’s look at it this way: From 1984 to 2019 (35 years), the record improved 1.42 seconds. In 13 months, McLaughlin has improved it 1.48 seconds.
During those previous 35 years the record was broken eight times by seven different women. Women didn’t even contest the event until 1974, so it stands to reason that it would have a lot of room for improvement. Still, the world record improvements came incrementally — in order, by .03 of a second, then .23, .38, .20, .13, .27, .14, .04.
Now along comes McLaughlin, who first dropped .26 of a second off the previous record, then .44, then .05, then a whopping .73. She accomplished this in an event that has now been around for nearly 50 years. It has matured. The records have become more difficult to break. Yuliya Pechonkina’s record of 52.34 stood for 16 years, from 1993 to 2016.
Let’s look at it another way: McLaughlin would’ve beaten two women in Friday’s 400-meter dash final at the world championships — and they didn’t have hurdles to clear. She would have placed third in the 400-meter dash at last month’s NCAA championships while running over hurdles. Only 31 Division I male collegiate hurdlers ran faster than her in 2022, and there are 338 NCAA Division I schools that compete in the sport.
Now let’s look at it another way. Track and field has a points system so that performances in one event can be compared to performances in other events. Point values are assigned to every possible time in the running events and to every possible mark in the field events. Using the points system, let’s compare McLaughlin’s time to three of the oldest and greatest records in the books, all of them widely suspected of being produced by athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.
The first two were set by athletes during the Cold War who were competing for Eastern Bloc nations. After the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, records were found that confirmed what most observers had suspected for decades — Eastern Bloc athletes were employing a systemic, government-sponsored drug program. In 2017, the IAAF — the governing body for international track and field (now called World Athletics) — considered a proposal to void all world records set before 2005, the year that it began storing blood and urine samples so they could be tested again as testing procedures advanced. That’s how formidable those records were, and it ruined the record book the same way baseball’s steroid era ruined its record book
Two of the most formidable records were set during the Cold War era by East Germany’s Marita Koch and Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova. In 1985, Koch set a record in the 400-meter dash of 47.60 that no one has come close to challenging. But it is worth “only” 1,304 points on the international points table. In 1983, Kratochvilova set a record in the 800-meter run of 1:53.28 that also has been unapproachable. It’s worth 1,286 points.
McLaughlin’s hurdle record is worth 1,312 points.
In 1988, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner of the U.S. set a 200-meter dash world record of 21.34 that is widely considered to be suspicious. It has been untouchable, as well. It’s worth 1,308 points.
McLaughlin is a sensation, the Secretariat of track and field. Pity her rivals. Dalilah Muhammad, the previous world record holder and an Olympic and world champion, was left in the dust in Friday’s race, finishing a distant third. The Netherlands’ Femke Bol, a graceful 6-foot tall strider and history’s third-fastest ever, finished second with a time of 52.27 — a time that would’ve been considered sensational 13 months ago. Like McLaughlin, she’s only 22. She came along at the wrong time.
Ato Boldon, the former world champion sprinter and now an NBC commentator, wondered aloud how much faster McLaughlin might run if she had a rival who could push her through the homestretch.
It’s tempting to wonder what McLaughlin could do in other races, as well. If she can run 50.68 for 400 meters over hurdles, what could she run that distance without hurdles? She could challenge Koch’s long-standing record. She also could run a strong 800.
McLaughlin revealed after her race that she is looking beyond the hurdles.
“Me and Bobby are going to go back after the season, decide if this (400 hurdles) is still an event I even want to do or if we’re going to find something else because I think we’ve accomplished so much in it, but there’s more to the sport and there’s more I want to try,” she told NBC. “So we’ll see after the season if we want to stick with it or switch to something else. There’s always more to be done.”