It started the way his races often do – a slap of the chest, a pump of the fist, and a roar to the camera – but ended like none have done before.
As Karsten Warholm crossed the finish line of the men’s Olympic 400-meter hurdles final and registered the numbers on the stadium clock, his face turned to a mixture of exhaustion, elation and disbelief.
The Norwegian’s time of 45.94 seconds in Tokyo on Tuesday is likely to shift perceptions of what is possible in this event as he held off the USA’s Rai Benjamin and shattered his own world record by more than half a second.
In a golden era for the men’s 400m hurdles, this was the Olympic final the event deserved. Benjamin’s time of 46.17 seconds for silver would have comfortably broken the previous record Warholm had set in July, while Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos’ bronze-medal time of 46.72 was just outside it.
“That was the best race in Olympic history … everyone in this event should be getting paid big bucks, in all honesty,” Benjamin later quipped.
The forerunner in this event since his world championship title in 2017, Warholm now has an Olympic medal to show for his efforts. He inched ahead of Benjamin after the final hurdle and ripped a huge hole down the middle of his sprint suit after crossing the line.
“The lactic acid is just crazy, I couldn’t feel my legs,” Warholm told reporters about the end of the race.
“I was just running over the line because I didn’t take anything for granted today. All respect to Rai for running 46.17 – that’s just crazy.”
Running in lane six, Warholm quickly caught up with Dos Santos and Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba in the lanes outside him.
He was leading by the 200-meter mark, but the race was far from won as Benjamin slowly gained ground in the adjacent inside lane.
The pair were practically level at the final hurdle, but Warholm summoned an extra ounce of energy to take the gold.
“I ran sort of scared, but that’s something that I always do,” Warholm added. “I knew that with my fast opening, I was up on the side of dos Santos and Samba really early in the race.
“That was my tactic today, I think I won on tactics. I really went out hard and tried to get the guys with me … after that I just ran for my life. I would have died for that gold medal.”
Kevin Young’s 400m hurdles world record from the 1992 Olympics had stood for nearly three decades before Warholm broke it a month ago – a barrier the 25-year-old has previously likened to the race to get a man on the moon.
But this Olympic final has redefined the discipline.
The three athletes on the podium can lay claim to being the fastest 400m hurdlers ever; Samba, the fifth-fastest on the all-time list behind Young, finished fifth behind the British Virgin Islands’ Kyron McMaster in the final.
Fast track, fast times?
For silver medalist Benjamin, there was a mixture of frustration and pride.
“It’s a lot to process,” he told reporters. “I cried a little bit … but I am really happy to be a part of history like this and just to show where this event can go.
“I don’t think even Usain Bolt’s 9.58 (at the World Championships in Berlin) topped that. I mean, three guys pretty much broke the world record.”
The Tokyo Olympics have so far yielded fast times on the track, notably Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Olympic record in the women’s 100m final.
Some have put it down to advancements in shoe technology, while others have credited the favorable track surface.
“It feels like I’m walking on clouds,” said US sprinter Ronnie Baker. “It’s really smooth out there. It’s a beautiful track, one of the nicest I’ve run on.”
Accoring to World Athletics and Mondo, the company that prepared the track ahead of the Games, more than 280 world records had been established on Mondo tracks prior to the Tokyo Olympics.
However, Benjamin said that, in his race at least, the fast times were more about the athletes themselves.
“People say it’s the track, it’s the shoes. I would wear different shoes and still run fast, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.
“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’s going to go out there and do what we did just now, ever. I don’t care who you are.”
Mihambo’s golden jump
Before the theatrics of the men’s 400m hurdles, Germany’s Malaika Mihambo delivered drama in the women’s long jump when she claimed the gold medal with her final leap of seven meters.
It put her ahead of the USA’s Brittney Reese and Nigeria’s Ese Brume, neither of whom could go beyond the seven-meter mark with their final jumps and took silver and bronze respectively.
“I feel overwhelmed. It was, I think, the most exciting women’s long jump competition in history,” said Mihambo.
“It was so exciting to be part of and I am happy I made it at the end.
“I knew that I could jump farther than 6.95m. I just needed to hit the board. I knew all the time that I could do it. I just knew that I had one last attempt to do it and I am so happy to grab the gold.”
Those two gold medals to Norway and Germany in the Tuesday morning session mean that the first 15 golds handed in track and field events at the Tokyo Olympics have gone to athletes from 15 different countries.