Olympic Men’s 400H — The 46-Second Barrier Is No More

Karsten Warholm’s World Record 45.94 led the way as Rai Benjamin & Alison dos Santos moved to Nos. 2 & 3 on the all-time list. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

SIMPLY UNBELIEVABLE. When Karsten Warholm lunged across the finish of the 400 hurdles the Omega display board flashed “45.94” — a time that leaped so far beyond the boundaries of what many thought possible that it took a few moments to absorb, to fully realize that it was not a timing malfunction but rather the most tangible result of one of the greatest performances in the history of our sport.

The Norwegian’s first thought, as he stared at the result, took a more contemporary twist: “That’s sick.”

That the favored 25-year old WR holder captured gold surprised few, though his arch-rival, Rai Benjamin, perhaps had as many believers in his corner. That the race bettered the WR was even less of a surprise.

On July 01 in his season 400H opener at the Bislett Games, Warholm had blistered a 46.70 to break the oldest track record on the books, the 46.78 that Kevin Young set in the Barcelona Olympics in ’92. Benjamin had won the Olympic Trials in 46.83 just a few days before. Together, yes, they would push each other to a new best as the top end of the all-time list was destroyed (see chart).

Some even wondered if the WR would fall in the semis when two days earlier the two titans ended up seeded into the same race. Both fought back the urge to show their cards too soon, Warholm gliding to a 47.30 and Benjamin easing up for a 47.37. Both surpassed history’s previous fastest prelim, a 47.58 by Edwin Moses back in ’84.

The prospects for the final shone even brighter with the qualification of most of the essential performers, including the top 5 from the T&FN formchart. The two other Americans failed to advance, Kenny Selmon’s 48.58 netting him a 4th, and Dave Kendziera running 48.67 for a 3rd.

In the final, under a scorching sunny sky, Benjamin drew lane 5, Warholm 6. In 2 was Italy’s Allessando Sibilio, who had PRed at 47.93 in his semi. Doha runner-up Yasmani Copello of Turkey was in 3. Next came Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, the Doha 4th-placer with a PR of 47.50.

On the outside, in lane 7 stood Brazilian Alison dos Santos, the youngest in the field at 21, who had run a South American Record 47.31 in his semi. To his right was Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba, one of 4 humans to have run under 47 with his 46.98 in ’18. A 47.47 in his semi indicated a return to health after a long struggle with a hip injury. Lane 9 featured Rasmus Mägi; the Rio 6th-placer had set an Estonian Record 48.36 in his semi.

Nothing complex about Warholm’s strategy. As always, he rocketed out fast at the crack of the gun: “I wanted to stress [Benjamin] a lot and just go out really hard. That was my plan. I didn’t expect to go past dos Santos and Samba so early.”

Benjamin also charged out fast. The two had synchronous clearings of the first two hurdles, with Warholm gaining a slight lead on 3. Then came 4 — the Norwegian flew over smoothly, but the American shortened his lightning stride to hit his preferred 13 steps between hurdles. “I chopped 4, and as a result, I didn’t run how I was supposed to do 5,” he explained.

Suddenly Warholm had an edge that kept growing through hurdle 7. Then Benjamin started coming back at him. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna get this guy. It’s coming and it’s coming and you see the distance start to close.”

But as they approached 10, the Norwegian found a new gear, switching from 13 strides to 15. Coming off the final hurdle just inches ahead of the American, he poured it on. “I just ran for my life. I would die for that gold medal today… I didn’t feel confident until I crossed the finish line.”

At the finish he had a lead of an entire stride, becoming the first man to break the 46-second barrier. He tore open his jersey and howled. Then, stunned, he collapsed to his knees and gaped at the time. “I’m actually surprised that I ran that fast. I thought, 46.5, 46.4, that is what I thought was possible. That is what I thought Rai could do as well, and it would come down to who wanted it the most.”

Benjamin followed, his own 46.17 bettering the previous WR by a massive 0.53, yet he crossed a full stride in arrears. He fell to his knees as well, tearfully trying to comprehend what had just happened.

“Man, 46.1 and I lost… I ran out of real estate,” he said. “I was running my butt off coming home and just didn’t have enough space… I’m happy to be a part of history. I can’t be mad at that at all. As a competitor it hurts a lot. That’s the nature of the sport.

Almost lost in the slipstream were the others. Coming off the turn, dos Santos pulled away from McMaster and Samba to fly down the stretch to a 46.72 for bronze. Just 5 weeks earlier, that time would have been a World Record. A parade of stunners followed. In 4th, McMaster destroyed his NR with a 47.08. In 5th, Samba’s 47.12 was his No. 2 time ever. Copello (47.81) and Magi (48.11) also scored NRs.

The race produced the fastest time ever run in, obviously, lanes 5 & 6, as well as the fastest times-for-place for all 8 positions.

Comprehending what Warholm and Benjamin created will take some time. The greatest hurdle race ever? Almost no question. The greatest performance ever in any event? “Your words, not mine,” quipped the winner. “I think it’s up there.”

Benjamin had no doubt. “That was the best race in Olympic history.”

Warholm acknowledged the debt he had to the competition: “I wouldn’t have run 45.94 today if it wasn’t for Rai or dos Santos.”

Never before has the 400H record been so close to the flat standard, at just 2.91 seconds away. But will this mark last as long as Young’s? Or Bob Beamon’s legendary long jump?

None of the principals think so. There’s Eugene next year, then Budapest, then Paris. These are young men. And they still have something to prove.

“It just goes to show where we are in the sport and where the event is going,” said Benjamin. “Hopefully next year it will be even faster.”

Said Warholm, “When someone takes it to a new level, other people see that as possible.”


(August 03) (temperature 88F/31C; humidity 73%)

1. Karsten Warholm (Nor) 45.94 WR (old WR 46.70 Warholm ’21);

2. Rai Benjamin (US) 46.17 AR (old AR 46.78 Kevin Young [FLAC] ’92) (2, 2 W);

3. Alison dos Santos (Bra) 46.72 NR (3, 4 W);

4. Kyron McMaster (BVI) 47.08 NR (7, =14 W);

5. Abderrahmane Samba (Qat) 47.12;

6. Yasmani Copello (Tur) 47.81 =NR;

7. Rasmus Mägi (Est) 48.11 NR;

8. Alessandro Sibilio (Ita) 48.77.

best-ever mark-for-place: 1–8)

(lanes: 2. Sibilio; 3. Copello; 4. McMaster; 5. Benjamin; 6. Warholm; 7. dos Santos; 8. Samba; 9. Mägi)

(reaction times: Sibilio 0.144, Warholm 0.145, dos Santos 0.156, McMaster 0.157, Copello 0.166, Mägi 0.167, Benjamin 0.168, Samba 0.186)

HEATS (July 30)

I–1. Samba 48.38; 2. dos Santos 48.42; 3. Abdelmalik Lahoulou (Alg) 48.83; 4. Kemar Mowatt (Jam) 49.06; 5. Ludvy Vaillant (Fra) 49.23; 6. Máté Koroknai (Hun) 49.80; 7. Chieh Chen (Tai) 50.96.

II–1. Jaheel Hyde (Jam) 48.54; 2. Kenny Selmon (US) 48.61; 3. Hiromu Yamauchi (Jpn) 49.21; 4. Constantin Preis (Ger) 49.73; 5. Armando Machava Creve (Moz) 50.37; 6. Mohamed Amin Touati (Tun) 50.58; 7. Sérgio Fernández (Spa) 51.51; 8. Ned Justeen Dino Azemia (Sey) 51.67.

III–1. Warholm 48.65; 2. Thomas Barr (Ire) 49.02; 3. Sibilio 49.11; 4. Luke Campbell (Ger) 49.19; 5. Wilfried Happio (Fra) 49.39; 6. Marcio Teles (Bra) 49.70; 7. Gerald Drummond (CR) 49.92.

IV–1. McMaster 48.79; 2. Copello 49.00; 3. Shawn Rowe (Jam) 49.18; 4. Dave Kendziera (US) 49.23; 5. Joshua Abuaku (Ger) 49.50; 6. Kazuki Kurokawa (Jpn) 50.30; 7. Jordin Andrade (CPV) 50.64.

V–1. Benjamin 48.60; 2. Mägi 48.73; 3. Sokwakhana Zazini (SA) 49.51; 4. Nick Smidt (Neth) 49.55; 5. Vít Müller (CzR) 49.59; 6. Takatoshi Abe (Jpn) 49.98; 7. M.P. Jabir (Ind) 50.77.

SEMIS (August 01)

I–1. Warholm 47.30 (fastest prelim ever); 2. Benjamin 47.37; 3. Copello 47.88; 4. Barr 48.26; 5. Mowatt 48.95; 6. Zazini 48.99; 7. Vaillant 49.02; 8. Abuaku 49.93.

II–1. dos Santos 47.31 NR; 2. Samba 47.47; 3. Sibilio 47.93 PR; 4. Selmon 48.58; 5. Campbell 48.62 PR; 6. Rowe 48.83 PR; 7. Smidt 49.35; 8. Müller 49.69.

III–1. McMaster 48.26; 2. Mägi 48.36 NR; 3. Kendziera 48.67; 4. Preis 49.10; 5. Lahoulou 49.14; 6. Yamauchi 49.35; 7. Happio 49.49; 8. Hyde 1:27.38. ◻︎

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