Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin Both Broke a Record, But Only One Won Gold
TOKYO – Karsten Warholm couldn’t feel his legs as he approached the finish line. A build-up of lactic acid is expected and usually causes great discomfort for world-class athletes. But in this case, as he pursued his first Olympic title, Warholm pushed himself completely elsewhere, where the pain was replaced by a kind of absence.
“I just ran for my life,” he said.
The result was one of the great races in Olympic history. Warholm, a 25-year-old Norwegian who grew up training to be a decathlete, erased his own world record in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, winning in 45.94 seconds at the Tokyo Games on Tuesday. Rai Benjamin of the United States was second in 46.17 seconds, a time that also eclipsed Warholm’s previous world record, but was not good enough for gold.
The cold reality left Benjamin in tears.
“It’s a lot to deal with,” he said.
Where to start? Not so long ago, the world record lasted almost 29 years. In the past five weeks, Warholm has switched to this brand twice. His time on Tuesday was faster than 18 of the 48 Olympians who competed here in qualifying for the men’s 400 meters – the race without a series of 10 hurdles on the way. (Benjamin was faster than 14 of them.)
And then there were the seven men who finished behind Warholm – five national records among them. Alison dos Santos of Brazil won the bronze medal in 46.72 seconds, a South American record and the fourth fastest time in history. Each would have been a generational talent if they weren’t from the same generation.
“Everyone in this event should be paid a lot of money,” Benjamin said. “And I think it will only get better next year and the year after.”
Warholm and Benjamin met in the same semi-final on Sunday, their first meeting since 2019, when Warholm edged out Benjamin to defend his world championship.
Both men crossed the finish line smoothly – Warholm less than a tenth of a second ahead of Benjamin – while saving energy for the final, a showdown they have been waiting for for years.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Benjamin said.
Warholm was restless as well, although he had a knack for creating an appearance of easy confidence. He slaps his chest and face before his runs, leaving red marks on his body – a dramatic prelude to the event itself, which he attacks with raw ferocity. But all the staging tends to camouflage his true feelings, he said, and it was no different heading into Tuesday’s final.
“I ran a little scared,” he said, “and that’s something I always do.”
As the fastest qualifier in the semi-finals, Warholm was able to choose his lane. He chose lane 6, just outside Benjamin in lane 5. Warholm prefers a more gradual curve of the track, he said, but that also meant he couldn’t see Benjamin for a while. much of the race, if at all. . All Warholm could control was his effort. And he wanted to come out strong, he said, to create “stress” among the other runners.
He could sense he had managed to get out of the first corner when he started to catch up on Dos Santos and Abderrahman Samba of Qatar, both of whom he could spot on his outside.
“I knew I had taken them to a place they didn’t want to be,” Warholm said. “I didn’t want to be there myself, because it hurts.”
Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands had to tell himself to stay calm against players like Warholm and Benjamin. Too often, he said, “if you go after them it’s suicidal”.
Benjamin got off to a good start but said he mis-timed his steps before the fourth hurdle, an almost imperceptible mistake that slowed his momentum and turned out to be costly.
“This event is so ruthless,” he said.
Still, Benjamin seemed to win over Warholm at the exit of the last corner before Warholm found some energy in reserve. When his time flashed on the scoreboard, he ripped his jersey off and screamed.
“I would have died for this gold medal today,” he said.
There was a lot of speculation at the Games about the impact of a fast running surface and improvements in shoe technology. Warholm has a carbon plate in his toes which he says is the result of a joint effort between Puma and the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team, while Benjamin wears one of Nike’s futuristic spikes.
“I have a great shoe,” Warholm said. “It was important to make a shoe that gave credibility to the results, so we tried to make the plate as thin as possible. “
He suggested that Nike had crossed the line with the design of its shoes. Warholm called it a “trampoline” and used another word that didn’t suit the print.
As for the track? “It’s a really good track,” said Warholm. “But I think it’s not just the track. I think it’s the guys too.
One of those guys was McMaster, who finished fourth. He said he was not disappointed to miss the podium. Last year, after the Olympics were postponed, he had considered retiring. But he has since tapped into the camaraderie of competition and rediscovered his passion for the sport, he said.
It’s no small feat, said McMaster, to share the stage with the fastest men in the history of the event. On Tuesday, he was just grateful to be a part of it.
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