There had never been an Olympic final quite like this. In truth, there had never been a race quite like this, over any distance, not at any point in the history of this sport. Here was a performance, two performances, plucked from the realm of the extraterrestrial.
In 45.94 frenetic seconds at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo this morning, the limits of human potential were not so much repositioned as sent hurtling out and away into the stratosphere, Norway’s Karsten Warholm doing something unfathomable, something unimaginable: blasting one lap of the track and clearing 10 barriers in under 46 seconds.
It wasn’t just three quarters of a second faster than anyone else in history has run the 400m hurdles – which equates to a seven-metre improvement on the track – it was so far out there that once the 25-year-old crossed the line, the several hundred journalists present in an otherwise empty stadium fell into a stunned, speechless silence.
Midway through a 17-day stretch of watching the world’s best athletes in 33 sports, this was an event that existed on an entirely different plane: an outlier among outliers – a race, a performance, an athlete, that will be spoken about a century from now.
Warholm was already the fastest man of all time, but he knew, settling into his blocks on Tuesday morning, that he would have to go quicker to win gold, given the presence of the third-fastest man ever, USA’s Rai Benjamin, in the lane inside him. He had a plan to deal with his presence.
“With him being on my inside I wanted to stress him a lot, to go really hard,” said Warholm. “I knew I had really got him in a place he didn’t want to be. I didn't want to be there myself, because it hurts.”
Warholm ran the first bend in his typical manner: with extreme violence.
His powerful, explosive stride gobbled up the stagger of Brazilian rival Alison Dos Santos in the lane outside him. Down the back straight, soaring along with just 13 strides between hurdles, he had taken everyone in the race into the equivalent of Everest’s death zone. The only question was whether it would end up him killing him first.
“I would die for that gold medal today,” he said later, and nothing in the way he ran suggested he was joking.
What on earth have we just witnessed 🤯 🤯 I am absolutely shook, is this even real life. Absolute hero. I think I could cry pic.twitter.com/AnilbPsdJl— Thomas Barr (@TomBarr247) August 3, 2021
But Benjamin would just not lie down. The 24-year-old American has been a growing force these past few years, one with a rangy, elegant athleticism that makes running this event seem almost poetic.
Warholm is the antithesis of him. He’s all power, strength, and piston-like force, combining to produce a dazzling and almost frightening level of speed.
Around the final turn, Benjamin began to close him down, sizing up his nemesis on the run to the 10th and final barrier. Warholm was ready for him, shortening his stride pattern, ensuring he maintained momentum into and over the last.
Benjamin, meanwhile, met it awkwardly, a minuscule reduction in his momentum that could have been costly. Afterwards Warholm was asked if that mistake did indeed cost the American gold and he seemed almost affronted by the suggestion, given the event has hurdles in its title.
“All credit to him,” he said. “But if that mistake cost him the gold medal, he shouldn't have done it in the Olympics.”
When Warholm hit the line in 45.94, he glanced at the clock and his expression stood for all those present for this moment of sporting history: all those back in Norway who’d set the alarms or stayed up half the night for a national celebration; all the athletics or Olympic fans in homes around the world who will know where they were and how they felt when witnessing a performance that will echo an eternity. Warholm’s first thought when he saw the clock?
“This is sick.”
“I never thought in my wildest imagination it would ever be possible,” he added.
Benjamin hit the line close behind, his 46.17 a whopping chunk below the world record of 46.70, which Warholm had run in Oslo earlier this summer. In third Dos Santos set a South American record of 46.72, which was below the world record of Kevin Young’s, 46.78, that had stood for 29 years before Warholm went on his trail of destruction this summer. How, we tried to imagine, could it feel to have surpassed everyone else in history – as Benjamin had – and still wind up with a silver medal?
“If you would have told me that I was going to run 46.1 and lose,” he said, “I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room.”
Warholm was asked how he’d have felt beforehand if he found out Benjamin was going to clock 46.1: “I would have put myself on the first flight home.”
This being athletics, extraordinary performances often demand extraordinary explanations, and in the aftermath, as we tried to make sense of it all, the spotlight fell to two areas, beyond of course Warholm’s once-in-a-generation level of talent and his rabid appetite for training, which often sees him spend eight or more hours a day perfecting his craft.
One of those areas was, for once, not doping. While outstanding performances always invite questions, there has never been any whiff of suspicion surrounding Warholm's progression, his background, his training group, his coach – the red flags often looked for when trying to gauge an athlete's credibility.
Two places the lens did focus, however, were on advances in track and shoe technology. On the latter subject Warholm was refreshingly transparent; revealing his sponsor Puma had been working with Mercedes to develop a carbon plate for the sole of his spikes. Warholm and his coach had worked on its development and he ensured they did not follow designs used by Nike, whose top-of-the-line spikes contain airpods under the plate along with a layer of hyper-responsive foam.
“I have a great shoe,” said Warholm, who added that he hates Nike’s design. “It was important to make a shoe that gives credibility to the results, we tried to make the plate as thin as possible. I don’t see why you should put anything beneath a sprinting shoe. In middle-distance I understand because you want cushioning, but if you put a trampoline there I think it’s bullshit. It takes credibility away from our sport.”
Another contributory factor was undoubtedly the track, a next-generation Mondo surface understood to be more responsive than any previous version, producing an energy return that makes comparisons with previous eras seem almost obsolete.
But highlighting all this should do nothing to dampen the earth-shattering nature of this race. Every athlete who competed here over the past five days has run on the same surface with essentially the same technology. Most did not excel, and none have done anything approaching this.
As he did a casual lap of honour after the race, Warholm ran into his long-time coach, Leif Olav Alnes, the quirky, likeable 64-year-old who has a relationship with his star athlete that seems more like best mates rather than coach-and-athlete.
“It was the first time I saw him with a high pulse,” said Warholm. “I think he was actually a bit impressed today.”
And so was everyone else. On the back straight an Irish coach leaned over the railings and told Warholm: “that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
The Norwegian smiled back: “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
It said much about the occasional cruelty of this stage that a run like Benjamin’s was not rewarded with gold, but the American will know he now possesses the hardest-earned silver in Olympic history, and played a key part in a race that will live forever.
“I don’t think any race could compare,” he said. “It’s insane. It was the best race ever in Olympic history.”