Karsten Warholm wins world 400m hurdles title; Rai Benjamin nearly scratches

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It was going to take a superhuman effort to break the oldest world record in men’s track. Karsten Warholm was ready to go the distance, so much so that he felt his heart stopping during the marquee event at the world championships in Doha on Monday night.

Warholm, a fiery Norwegian, repeated as world champion in the 400m hurdles, an event that just a few years ago was an also-ran on the program. He clocked 47.42 seconds, the fastest time at worlds in 14 years, but disappointingly slow for a race where the second-, third- and fourth-fastest men in history chased a 27-year-old world record of 46.78.

“Actually, I felt my heart was going to stop,” Warholm said on the BBC after celebrating by wearing a viking helmet, as he did in 2017. “I had pain in my chest, like, I’m going to die, but it’s going to be worth it. Here I am, world champion, and I’m not dead, either.”

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The 400m hurdles final was given the same showcase treatment awarded the men’s and women’s 100m finals the previous two nights. Partly, perhaps mostly, because of the presence of host-nation star Abderrahman Samba, splashed on newspaper front pages.

But it was deserved beyond that. In the last 16 months, Warholm, Samba and American Rai Benjamin combined to clock five of the nine fastest times in history, pushing Edwin Moses from the second-fastest man ever to No. 5. Only Kevin Young ran faster, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

When all three men reached Monday’s final, the showdown was on. Young, after years largely away from the sport’s headlines, conducted several interviews this season on the prospect of ceding the world record. But what few knew was that two of the three stars, Benjamin and Samba, didn’t even know if they’d be able to race this week.

Both revealed as much in interviews, Benjamin after taking silver in 47.66 and Samba after rallying for bronze in 48.03. Before worlds, Samba had not cleared hurdles in competition since May 18 due to an unspecified injury.

“Two days ago I wasn’t sure whether to compete or not,” he said, according to the IAAF, “so to make the podium is amazing.”

Benjamin’s problem: he fell while clearing hurdles in training a few days before flying to Doha, he told Lewis Johnson on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA immediately after the final. He underwent an X-Ray and an MRI and was found to have a heel bone bruise. He spent a few days on crutches. Two nights before the first round, his coach, 1992 Olympic 400m champion Quincy Watts, told him that he looked terrible and was considering pulling him from the meet.

“I just broke down,” said Benjamin, who represented Antigua and Barbuda before being cleared to sprint for the U.S., his birth nation, a year ago. “I took it round by round, sucked it up. I’m just so grateful I came out with a silver medal. … Wish it was gold, but the circumstances weren’t in my favor.”

The 400m hurdles was once an also-ran in the sport. It always led off Diamond League programs, more than an hour before the premier sprints. The winning time in Rio was the slowest for an Olympic final since 1984. Warholm’s winning time two years ago (in the rain) was the slowest in world championships history.

Now its momentum should carry into 2020, assuming Benjamin and Samba get back to full strength. Samba is the oldest of Monday’s medalists, having turned 24 years old on Sept. 5. Warholm, as much emotion as he emits before and after races, said he wasn’t too sure about his prospects going into the final. Then there’s Benjamin, who started the 400m hurdles renaissance by clocking 47.02 at the 2018 NCAA Championships. He believes it’s not finished yet.

“If I stay healthy,” he said, “It’s going to be scary.”

Worlds continue Tuesday, headlined by Noah Lyles chasing legends in the 200m final.

The U.S. picked up five total silver or bronze medals on Monday, including Vashti Cunningham‘s first Olympic or world outdoor medal in the high jump. The daughter of retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham took bronze, equaling her personal-best clearance of 2.00 meters. Russian Mariya Lasitskene three-peated as world champion by clearing 2.04.

World-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech denied American Emma Coburn a repeat world title in the 3000m steeplechase, running away from the field in 8:57.84. Coburn earned her third straight global championship medal, this time silver in a personal-best 9:02.35.

Muktar Edris was the surprise 5000m champion, even though he was the defending champ. Edris, fifth with a lap to go, passed a gassed Norwegian 19-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen and led an Ethiopian one-two with Selemon Barega in 12:58.85. Edris, who upset Mo Farah in for the 2017 World title, had finished 11th and 18th in his two Diamond League races this season.

Another shock came in the women’s 800m. American Ajee Wilson was the clear favorite in the absence of all three Rio Olympic medalists, including Caster Semenya, who are impacted by the IAAF’s new testosterone rule. Wilson led for the first 700 meters but dropped to third in the final stretch. Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi broke through for the win in a national record 1:58.04, holding off charging American Raevyn Rogers by .14. Nakaayi, who failed to get out of the semifinals at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds, came to Doha ranked 22nd in the world this year.

In non-final action Monday, U.S. 110m hurdles champion Daniel Roberts was disqualified for clipping a hurdle in an adjacent lane in his first-round win. The semifinals, featuring Olympic champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica and Americans Grant Holloway and Devon Allen, and final are Wednesday.

Brit Dina Asher-Smith led the qualifiers into Tuesday’s 200m semifinals, one day after earning 100m silver. She is one of the few stars left in the event. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Dafne Schippers, who combined for the last three world titles, withdrew before the heats. The world’s fastest woman this year, Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo, did not enter the 200m because it conflicts with her primary event, the 400m.

Miller-Uibo won her 400m first-round heat on Monday in 51.30 seconds. She is a massive favorite, having not lost an individual race at any distance in two years. All four Americans also advanced to Tuesday’s semifinals, including defending world champion Phyllis Francis.

MORE: Top 400m runner forced to 200m at worlds due to testosterone rule

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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