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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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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