2021 Race of the Year: The Men’s Olympic 400-Meter Hurdles Final Was Unforgettable

By Jonathan Gault
January 12, 2022

How big of a track and field fan are you?

Here’s a test for you. Remember everything you can about the 2016 Olympic men’s 400-meter hurdle final.

Done? Okay, here’s what I came up with:

  • American Kerron Clement won the race.
  • The winning time wasn’t particularly fast — in the 47s.
  • Turkey’s Yasmani Copello won a medal.

And that’s it. A trip to Wikipedia informs me that someone named Boniface Tumuti — who has apparently disappeared off the face of the Earth — earned the silver medal and that he was one of two Kenyans in the final, neither of whom were the reigning world champion, the late Nicholas Bett. Also, that Thomas Barr of Ireland finished fourth — ah yes, I remember that now. The Irish journalists in Rio de Janeiro were thrilled to finally have a sprint finalist. But all in all, it’s fair to say the men’s 400m hurdles was the least memorable track final of the entire Rio Olympics.

That makes sense, because in 2016, the men’s 400m hurdles was on life support. Times were slow — Clement’s winning time of 47.73 was the slowest at an Olympics since 1984 — and as a result, the event had no stars. It was always the first race held at Diamond Leagues, the vegetables we had to consume before getting to the dessert of the rest of the meet. The most exciting thing to happen in the event recently didn’t even involve a 400m hurdler: it was when decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton decided to take up the event on a whim in 2014 and immediately turned himself into one of the best in the world at it.

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It is incredible how quickly things can change in this sport. One year after the Rio final, a rosy-cheeked, chest-thumping 21-year-old from Norway burst onto the scene, and while a few curmudgeons didn’t approve of his pre-race antics, Karsten Warholm (himself a former multi-eventer) injected some much-needed personality into the event. In 2018, Warholm was joined by 22-year-old Abderrahman Samba of Qatar, who spent his summer smashing meet records across Europe, and American Rai Benjamin, a 20-year-old son of a professional cricketer who ran a shocking 47.02 on a rain-soaked track at the final meet hosted at the old Hayward Field. Suddenly an event bereft of stars had three of them.

And so the hype began for the 2020 Olympic final in Tokyo. When the race — delayed a year to August 3, 2021 — finally arrived, it was accompanied by towering hopes. Injuries had sapped Samba of his speed, but Warholm and Benjamin had only continued to get faster. By Tokyo, they had not raced each other for almost two years, and the expectation for the final, ludicrous as it sounds, was that Warholm and Benjamin should both break the existing world record, set a month earlier by Warholm at 46.70.

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In the semifinals on August 1, Warholm and Benjamin were draw in the same heat and went 1-2, Warholm running 47.30 to Benjamin’s 47.37, both leaving something in the tank despite running times that would have won the gold medal in both 2012 and 2016. It was clear something special was in store for the final.

But Warholm’s 45.94 winning time that morning in Tokyo was so fast that nobody knew what to make of it. The only context in which the number 45.94 had previously made sense in track & field was as a flat 400-meter time. Throwing it into a 400-meter hurdles result was like a martian landing on Earth. How did it get here?

And somehow, the outcome of the race had still been in doubt on the home straight. Styles make fights, and in that way Warholm and Benjamin are perfectly matched. One is a fast starter, the other a fast closer. And there was a moment, as Benjamin clawed into Warholm’s lead between hurdles nine and 10, that it seemed as if he might finally defeat his Norwegian rival.

It didn’t last, but Benjamin’s 46.17 will still go down as one of the finest performances in track & field history, even if it’s only the second-fastest in his own event. Benjamin had taken more than half a second off a world record that, prior to 2021, had not been touched for 29 years. After the race, Warholm admitted that he “would have put myself on the first flight home” had someone told him before the Olympics that Benjamin would run 46.17 in Tokyo.

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The depth extended beyond the top two. Brazil’s Alison dos Santos ran 46.72 for third, a time no one — not even Warholm and Benjamin — had run before 2021. Fourth through eighth place all set all-time marks for place.

Immediately after the race, I rushed down to the mixed zone beneath the Olympic stadium, a steamy mess of metal fences where sweaty journalists wait for the chance to interview athletes. I don’t know why I rushed. At the Olympics, the importance of a race is proportional to the amount of time the protagonists take to come through the mixed zone — the bigger the race, the more people want to talk to you. One hour means something big happened. Ninety minutes means it was very big. Warholm took two hours to reach us; the only athlete I can remember taking that long in Rio was Usain Bolt.

I’ve seen great races and I’ve seen world records, but the scene as we waited for the protagonists to arrive in Tokyo was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a mixed zone. Our job is to put races like that into context, but how do you put 45.94 into context? I started asking my colleagues whether that was the greatest race they’d ever seen in person, but their responses quickly made me realize I was asking the wrong question. I should have been asking whether that was the greatest race in the history of the sport.

We debated what could have caused human beings to run so fast over hurdles. The shoes? The track? Two all-time talents pushing each other all the way to the line? Most likely, a combination of all three. I was certain of one thing: I was incredibly lucky to have been in the Olympic Stadium on the morning of August 3. The worst thing, by far, about that day was that 60,000 seats stood empty for one of the greatest races in Olympic history. Everyone in that final earned the roar of the crowd that we, as media, could not give them. But what I can say, now and forever, is that I was there. I was there on the day Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin changed the 400-meter hurdles forever.

Here is Jonathan Gault’s race story from Tokyo on August 3: LRC The Greatest Race Ever? Karsten Warholm (45.94) Defeats Rai Benjamin (46.17) to Obliterate 400M Hurdles World Record & Win Olympic Gold

You can watch the race here.


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