The Greatest Race Ever? Karsten Warholm (45.94) Defeats Rai Benjamin (46.17) to Obliterate 400M Hurdles World Record & Win Olympic Gold

July 30, 2021 to August 08, 2021

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By Jonathan Gault
August 3, 2021

TOKYO — There is a number in mathematics known as Graham’s number. It is a very large number. So immense, in fact, that it is essentially impossible to contextualize. Humans can — and have — tried, but there is literally not even enough room in the universe to write its digits, let alone develop a rational understanding of what it means. Any sort of normal comparison falls short.

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The 2020 Olympic men’s 400-meter hurdle final is the Graham’s number of track & field. Any sort of comparison or analogy, including the one in the previous sentence, cannot fully capture what unfolded in just under 47 seconds on the Olympic Stadium track on Tuesday afternoon.

Norway’s Karsten Warholm just ran 45.94 seconds over hurdles.

The United States’ Rai Benjamin ran 46.17 and lost.

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Brazil’s Alison dos Santos ran 46.72 — a time that, as of five weeks ago, was faster than any human in history. He finished third. A distant third.

The race left even the most seasoned observers awestruck. We saw what Warholm and Benjamin, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, had done this season and knew a world record was almost inevitable; Benjamin ran 46.83 at the US Olympic Trials, Warholm ran 46.70 in Oslo (breaking Kevin Young’s 29-year-old world record) and it was clear. We, the track & field community, were supposed to be ready for this.

We were not.

Once the jaws picked up off the floor, a question hung in the steamy air of the Olympic Stadium. Was this the greatest race in the history of track & field?

Benjamin believes it was, at the very least, the best in the 122-year history of the Olympics. 

“I don’t even think Usain Bolt’s [9.69 was better than this],” Benjamin said.

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For posterity, let’s run through a checklist:

Quality of performance? Well it was a world record, so check. Double check, in fact, because Benjamin was almost as brilliant; were it not for Warholm, Benjamin’s .53 improvement on the previous WR would still have been the largest improvement of the record in 53 years. Per World Athletics scoring tables, equivalent performances to Warholm’s 45.94 include 1:39.79 in the 800 meters, 3:39.53 in the mile, 12:25.21 in the 5,000 and 2:00:20 in the marathon (among men’s track WRs, only Bolt’s 9.58 and 19.19 are superior). This race wasn’t just fast; it reset what was possible in an entire event.

Star power? Check. Warholm was already a double world champion, world record holder, and one of the sport’s most electric personalities. And the top three finishers are now the three fastest men in history. Outside of the athletes in this race, only one man — Kevin Young — has even come within a second of what Warholm ran today. We are witnessing the two greatest talents in the history of the event, at the peak of their powers, at the same time. How often does that happen in any sport?

The stage? The Olympic final. It doesn’t get any bigger.

And unlike Bolt in 2008 or Rudisha or 2012 — both iconic, paradigm-shifting performances — this was a race, with the outcome in doubt until the final hurdle. Warholm got his trademark flying start in lane 6, and by hurdle three, he had made up the stagger on dos Santos on his outside.

Benjamin, in lane 5, was always going to answer, and on the second turn, he began closing the gap to Warholm. By hurdle eight at the top of the homestretch, it was down to a stride. Coming off hurdle nine, Warholm could feel Benjamin’s breath on his neck. He had not been pressed like this in two years, and, growing desperate, he shortened his normally gargantuan strides, taking 15 between the final two hurdles rather than his typical 13.

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It was enough to fend off Benjamin. Coming off the final hurdle, Warholm found one last drop of energy and stopped the clock before 46 had a chance to appear.

“The last 20 meters, I couldn’t even feel my legs,” Warholm said. “I knew I had a crazy American coming on the inside there wanting to get me so I just ran for my life…I would die for that gold medal today.”

Warholm, mouth agape, hands on head, eyes bulging, was stunned. The stadium was stunned. The whole world was stunned, perhaps save for Warholm’s wily old coach Leif Olav Alnes, who had openly discussed the possibility of sub-46 with his pupil. Warholm ripped apart his speedsuit, Superman-style, and you almost expected to see a W underneath, because this was indeed superhero stuff. As the times on the scoreboard began to populate behind Warholm’s, each one pumped up the insanity a little more. All eight finishers set a best-ever mark for place.

An hour later, Benjamin still couldn’t process it all. He said it would take 24 hours at least.

“If you would have told me that I was going to run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room,” Benjamin said. “But I’m happy to be a part of history.”

And if you had told Warholm the same thing, that Benjamin would run 46.17 in Tokyo?

“I would have put myself on the first flight home,” Warholm said.

*Video of Race (US Visitors) *Rai Benjamin interview

***

Until a month ago, Kevin Young’s 46.78 WR had stood unbroken for 29 years. Today, it would not even have medalled. Taking .76 of a second off of a sprint record was not supposed to be possible in the year 2021. By percentage (1.6%), it was the largest chunk off a men’s track record since Michael Johnson’s 19.32 in 1996 (1.7%). That record lasted 12 years until a guy named Bolt arrived. This one may stand for even longer.

It is difficult to know exactly where to apportion credit for such a large chunk of time. Warholm and Benjamin deserve the lion’s share. Warholm is a supreme athlete who ran the previous world record, 46.70, totally alone in his first 400 hurdles race of the season. And today, he had another all-time great in Benjamin to push him in the race that both men have spent the past year targeting.

There is also the MONDO track in Tokyo, a bouncy, responsive surface that is said by insiders to be the fastest in history. 

And what of the shoes? The spikes Warholm wore today were the result of a collaboration between PUMA and Mercedes, which used engineering insights from its Formula 1 team to craft Warholm’s carbon-plated spikes. 

“Yes, we have the carbon plate, but we have tried to make it as thin as possible because that’s the way that I would like to do it. Of course, technology will always be there but I also want to keep it down to a level where we can actually compare results, that’s important.”

Warholm himself had input into the spike and said his aim was “to make it as credible as I think it can be.” He was also pointed in his criticism of the air pods and foam used in the spikes manufactured by Benjamin’s sponsor, Nike.

“I don’t see why you should put anything beneath a sprinting shoe,” Warholm said. “In the middle distance [events], I can understand it because they have the cushioning. You know if you want cushioning, you can put a mattress there, but if you put a trampoline there, I think it’s I think it’s bullshit and I think it takes credibility away from our sport.”

Benjamin was unequivocal: it was the athletes that made this race. This wonderful, incredible, unbelievable race, a race that no one who was present for it — a few hundred lucky souls — will ever forget. 

“[The track] does have a lot of give, don’t get me wrong, it’s a phenomenal track,” Benjamin said. “People say it’s the track, it’s shoes. I’ll wear different shoes and still run fast. It doesn’t really matter, in all honesty, at the end of it. I mean, there’s some efficiency in the shoe, don’t get me wrong, and it’s nice to have a good track but no one in history is going to go out there and do what we just did just now, ever. I don’t care who you are, it could be Kevin Young, Edwin Moses, all respect to those guys, but they cannot run what we just ran just now.”

1
3086
NOR
45.94 WR
2
3907
USA
46.17 AR
3
1318
BRA
46.72 AR
4
2456
IVB
47.08 NR
5
3295
QAT
47.12 SB
6
3668
TUR
47.81 =NR
7
1824
EST
48.11 NR
8
2439
ITA
48.77

Quick Takes by LetsRun.com

Quick take: Every once a while a race reminds us all why we love track and field

Once a generation, once a decade, or just every once in a while there is a race that defies what even the most cynical thought was possible. This was that race. Two of the LetsRun.com staffers back in the States said they yelled at their TV screens at the finish. Erik, the web guy, was in a hotel with his wife sleeping. She could tell he was so excited she demanded to let her see the race.

Warholm ripping his jersey apart like Superman will be the image a lot of people remember in this race, but nearly the entire field was in disbelief, as this was the fastest 400m hurdle race for positions 1 through 8. After the race ended, dos Santos looked at the clock, put his hands on his head, and fell backwards to the ground like he had fainted. He then pounded the ground in joy because he knew he had medalled in the most incredible 400m hurdle race of all time.

Thank you for letting us believe.

Trying to put today’s run in perspective is hard

There is nothing bigger a track and field athlete can do in the sport of track and field than break a world record in the Olympic final. Warholm joins the likes of David Rudisha, Usain Bolt and Bob Beamon in the history books.

In terms of percentage improvements, Warholm has transformed the 400H over the span of two races in the last month by 1.80% as he’s taken the record from 46.78 to 45.94. That’s more than Usain Bolt transformed the 100m. Bolt took the 100m WR down from 9.74 to 9.58, an improvement of 1.64%.

The great Edwin Moses broke the 400H world record four different times during his career, but never at the Olympics. Altogether, he brought the WR down by 0.80 — from 47.82 to 47.02, an improvement of 1.67%. 

Comparing track and field events may not be fair, but Warholm is never going to catch Bob Beamon, who improved the long jump by a ridiculous 6.59% in the thin air of Mexico City.

There is an interesting thread on the messageboard where fans are trying to put Warholm’s feat today in perspective. 

One poster pointed out that the gap between Warholm and the 10th best person in his event is greater than any other men’s track event. We haven’t double-checked his or her work but it’s pretty interesting.

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Difference Between 1st and 10th Best Performer in History

100 2.3%
200 2.6%
400 1.6%
800 1.5%
1500 1.3%
5000 1.6%
10000 1.7%
Marathon 1.3%
110h 0.9%
400h 2.9%
3kst 1.0%

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If you’d like to be a true track & field insider and get all the insights from Tokyo, join the LetsRun.com Supporters Club. Get daily video shows/podcasts from Tokyo, all the LetsRun.com content, savings on running shoes, and a free LetsRun.com or 1:59:40 shirt if you join for a year.

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