Tokyo Olympics: Hurdles set for centre stage as Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin seek glory

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Flick back through the startlists for the women’s 400m hurdles at the 2016 Olympics and you could probably have a fair guess at which youngster might since have emerged as the leading contender for gold this summer, even if you’d spent the last five years in a coma.

As far back as 2014, Sydney McLaughlin was announcing herself as a freakish talent with the potential to become the best on the planet, making her mark in athletics-mad Eugene as she claimed the first of many world-age-bests at the US Junior Championships.

At 14, McLaughlin was already faster than any 15 or 16-year-old girl had ever been and by the time she hit 16 herself, she was breaking the world junior record to book her place on the US team headed for Rio, where she became America’s youngest track and field Olympian in 44 years.

On a near-unchecked ascent, McLaughlin has been shattering more records ever since, right up until the US Olympic Trials at Hayward Field earlier this summer, when, with a sense of inevitability, she became not only the fastest 21-year-old ever, but the fastest woman full-stop.

Four days later, and an ocean away, Karsten Warholm was becoming a more unlikely conqueror of men’s track’s oldest world record, as Kevin Young’s 1992 mark of 46.78 was finally blown away.

‘Unlikely’ not because Warholm’s performance came out of the blue. Much the opposite, in fact, since the Norwegian had been hammering on the door for the past couple of years, even in uncompetitive “races” in sparse stadiums during 2020’s pandemic-hit season.

‘Unlikely’ because as recently as 2015 - as McLaughlin was destroying another world-age-best - Warholm was still, first and foremost, a decathlete.

Go back to those 2016 startlists and your coma awakening and, even with the knowledge that he would outperform expectations by breaking the national record and reaching a semi-final in Rio, it’d take a fair leap of faith to pick out the 20-year-old from Ulsteinvik as your future world-beater.

Except within twelve months, that’s exactly what he was, romping to a surprise gold at the World Championships in London at the end of his first full season in the discipline, his roar and Viking helmet celebration becoming the iconic image of a sodden night in the capital.

Whether they got here as a product of the Olympian factory that is the American collegiate system, or through the unconventional rigours of multi-eventing, what McLaughlin and Warholm share is the opportunity to light up these Games over the course of one lap and ten obstacles.

Both are seeking a first Olympic title and both are aware that, despite their dominance, despite their star quality, despite their status as the fastest of all-time, they could easily go home without it.

McLaughlin knows best, having already seen one supposed coming-of-age come and go. At the 2019 World Championships, having already become the new face of US track and field after turning pro amidst a huge commercial tug-of-war, the stage was set for McLaughlin to confirm her global arrival but she was thwarted by teammate Dalilah Muhammad who, for the second time that year, had to break the world record to beat her.

With Muhammad now 31, and McLaughlin having avenged that defeat at the US Trials, it would appear the baton has belatedly been passed, but the defending champion is still ranked No2 in the world and has already proven her ability to save her very best for the biggest stage. And that is before you consider Femke Bol, the Dutch sensation, six months McLaughlin’s junior and on a similarly frightening trajectory having gone to No4 on the all-time list with her stunning win in Stockholm in July.

Warholm, meanwhile, has not been beaten since 2018, but almost suffered a defeat of sorts earlier this year when Rai Benjamin came mighty close to pipping him to the world record that had become an obsession.

The American’s 46.83 at the US Trials was just 0.05 shy of Young’s mark and, at the time, quicker than Warholm had ever run.

While McLaughlin and Muhammad have renewed their rivalry already this season, Warholm and Benjamin are yet to cross paths when it matters. The pair were due to meet in Monaco but after seeing Warholm snatch back the upper hand in breaking the world record, Benjamin decided the showdown was best saved for Tokyo. We got a dress rehearsal thanks to some strange seeding in the semi, but the rematch proper will be a different beast.

The beauty of the event right now is that it could be one of the greatest 400m hurdles races of all time - and it still not even be the best of the week.

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