‘The greatest race in history’: Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin deliver Olympic thriller to remember

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The Norwegian clinches gold ahead of his US rival (Getty)
The Norwegian clinches gold ahead of his US rival (Getty)

“It was probably the best race in Olympic history. I don’t even think Bolt’s 9.5 can beat that.”

Rai Benjamin had just run the race of his life. He had smashed Karsten Warholm’s 400m hurdles world record of 46.70 sec in the midday heat of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, entering uncharted waters in the history of athletics. But, incredibly, Warholm had gone faster. “I ran 46.1 and lost,” Benjamin said with a smile. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

They dragged Brazil’s rising star Alison dos Santos to 46.72, a time that would have won gold in every Olympics in history but here, in this race, was worth a distant bronze. “He broke 46, it’s amazing,” said a beaming Dos Santos of Warholm’s staggering new world record, 45.94. Only four men had ever broken 47 before; this was truly another realm. “I’m proud to be part of history.”

Warholm vs Benjamin was always set to be one of the rivalries of the Games. The American posted an eye-catching 46.83 in the US trials earlier this summer; the Norwegian responded by breaking the world record in Oslo in 46.70.

They met in the semi-finals in Tokyo, slowing at the finish and almost crossing the line hand-in-hand. Warholm edged over first and it gave him choice of lanes for the final. He picked five, meaning he would start in front of his rival in four. Benjamin would have to catch him to beat him.

Before the start they paced the floor under the stadium, waiting to be announced. Benjamin had barely slept all night. “There were 10 million emotions in the call room,” he said. “We’re cool with each other but we weren’t talking. Then just before the race Karsten said ‘let’s go out and have fun and put on a show’.”

Warholm attacked from the gun. “With Rai being on my inside I wanted to stress him a lot and go out really hard. That was my plan. I didn't expect to go past Santos and [Abderrahman] Samba that early. That’s when I knew, this is a good opening.”

Benjamin was close though, and going down the back straight he was almost matching Warholm stride for stride. “After the first three hurdles I thought, I’m in this. I ran into the turn and I was like, I’m gonna get this guy.”

As they cleared the final hurdle with 80 metres to go, Warholm altered his stride pattern from the 13 steps he’d used on the way round. “I changed it up to 15 steps between hurdle nine and 10 because to do 13 steps, it takes a lot of patience in the ground, and when you're stressed and when you’re behind you don't tend to give yourself that patience. I don't know how he got off hurdle 10 but I can imagine probably not as good as he does when he’s not running under that much pressure.”

Sure enough it provoked an error from Benjamin, who stuttered into the final hurdle as Warholm took it with forward momentum. “I took a few more steps and that’s what cost me,” Benjamin said. “I ran out of real estate. I was running my butt off but I didn’t have the space.”

It was a flat race to the line, and Warholm had the lead and the speed. “I just run with my life. I would die for that gold medal. When you get to the end of the race you don't get to put on more speed, it’s all about not trying to lose speed because the lactic acid is just crazy – I couldn't feel my legs. So I was just running hard to the line because I didn't take anything for granted.”

Then he saw the time. “I thought: this is sick.”

‘This is sick’: Warholm reacts to his astonishing time (AP)
‘This is sick’: Warholm reacts to his astonishing time (AP)

Warholm’s coach had talked about running 45-something, but he hadn’t truly believed it would happen in Tokyo. “I thought I could do it one day, but not in 2021. I’m actually surprised that I ran that fast.” What if someone had told him that Benjamin would run 46.1 in the final? “I would have put myself on the first flight home.”

It is a compelling rivalry, one which could run for a long time: Benjamin is 24, Warholm is 25. Both are thoughtful and articulate, respectful but fiercely competitive too. “The kid’s amazing, man,” said Benjamin. “You can’t be mad at that at all. As a competitor it hurts, but he freaking did it, man.”

Warholm kept repeating the same thing: Benjamin ran a race that deserved a gold medal. “Full respect for running 46.17, that's crazy.” But he delivered some killer lines too, describing the hi-tech Nike shoes Benjamin wears as “bulls***”, and there was certainly no sympathy for his rival. “If that mistake cost him a gold medal then he shouldn’t have done it in the Olympics,” he said flatly.

Not that Benjamin wanted Warholm’s pity. After everything, the lingering sense was that they were not done yet. They had just blown open the doors to whole new realms of athletic capability, and they wanted to explore. “LA in ’28 in my back yard, Paris in ’24,” said Benjamin with a smile and a middle-distance stare, almost like he was picturing something. “There’s a lot to look forward to.”

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