Updated: August 3, 2021 2:30:27 pm
Last July when Karsten Warholm smashed the 29-year-old record in 400m hurdles in his hometown, Oslo, he prophesied: “It might take another world record to win the Olympics. I really think there is more in the tank.” He actualised the prophesy himself, as he hammered his own world record with a spectacular timing of 45.94, bettering his own mark by .76 seconds, and breaking the elusive 46-second barrier.
In one of the most intriguingly spectacular races in 400m hurdles history—some have anointed it as the greatest ever race in this category—Warholm’s blinding acceleration in the closing 20 metres made all the difference, which saw him past Rai Benjamin (46.17) and Alison dos Santos (46.72).
Both Benjamin and Santos had the run of their lives, their personal bests. Yet, glory was not theirs, they were outgunned by a Norwegian, who is already being christened the GOAT of hurdles. Benjamin felt devastated, though he embraced Warholm and congratulated him; he was a man resigned to destiny: “It’s tough… to run so fast and still lose. I trained my butt off, you are running the race million times in the head. It’s tough for athletes man. Now, to the world championships, man. I wish I had won this.”
It’s not easy being Warholm, to reduce time in the most excruciating of sprint events as effortlessly as he does. It’s no joke to break a world record twice in a month’s time. It is Bolt-esque. It’s not easy being Benjamin either, last month Benjamin came desperately close to breaking the event’s longstanding world record, coming within .05 seconds of the world record himself, but was informed that Warholm had broken it some hours ago. When told about the record, he quipped: “If I would have broken the world record, what would I have done in Tokyo? It’s just more fuel for the fire, man, I can run so much faster. I know I can run 46-low right now if I really tried, and that is no disrespect to anyone.”
He clearly did, racking up his personal best and breaking Warholm’s record. Only that Warholm had an even better run. One he calls the “closest to perfection.” So time-stopping a run that even Warholm cannot fathom it. “I can’t believe the time, it was so fast. A lot of time I have been asked about the perfect race. I said it didn’t exist. This is the closest. Olympic medal was the only thing missing in my collection, I can’t tell how important it is. People say don’t let sports define you, but this is all I have got. This is what I do from morning to night.”
Before the Tokyo games, both had effusively praised each other. The American, the Norwegian, had observed, is “the toughest competitor he ever had.” He told IAAF website after pipping him to gold in the 2019 World Championship: “If not for the speeds he had set, I would not have set my own speed. To raise your bar, you need opponents that are constantly pushing you,” Warholm said. Benjamin expressed the same during an interaction. “Every time I think I could run faster than him, he runs even faster. There is little you can do. He is just phenomenal.
They had their occasional verbal bouts too. Last year, Warholm told a reporter that he thinks of himself as track & field’s version of movie anti-hero Gordon Gekko, infamous for his “greed is good” tagline in the cult classic Wall Street. Benjamin counterpunched: “if Warholm is Gordon Gekko, I think of himself as the IRS!” Warholm then clarified: “I think that I actually got a bit misunderstood because what I think is that when it comes to sports, when you’re on the starting line, you know, you have no friends, right?”
It’s a rivalry that could simmer and sparkle for years to come. Warholm is just 25, Benjamin is a year younger. There are others like Santos and Abderrahman Samba who are tough and improving competitors themselves. From one to seven, at least a personal or national record was broken, thus brushing a layer of glamour to the often unglamorous race. Benjamin called it, the “spring time” of 400m hurdlers, Warholm feels he is lucky to be the face and essence of this revolution, much like the Bolt-Blake rivalry across the 100m-stretch in the last decade. “We are here to entertain, and these duels and head-to-heads, they are going to be something for everybody to remember,” he had said. They next face off each other in world championships in US.
On Tuesday, though, Warlholm had just one competitor. Time.