For Rai Benjamin, clearing the next hurdle will take something special

Rai Benjamin
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Rai Benjamin finds the question hard to answer, but he replied succinctly nonetheless.

“My outlook for this year?” he paused. “Run a lot faster than I did back in August.”

Won’t be easy.

Back in August, Benjamin crushed the men’s 400m hurdles world record by .53 of second at the Tokyo Olympics. But the Norwegian in the lane to his right, Karsten Warholm, obliterated the world record, going .76 faster than the best time in history and breaking the record for the second time in 33 days.

Benjamin became the first person to better the existing world record in an individual Olympic track and field final to win silver, not gold, in 41 years. The next day, the same thing happened to countrywoman Dalilah Muhammad in the women’s 400m hurdles. Muhammad, unlike Benjamin, already had an individual gold medal from 2016.

In his aftermath, through tearful interviews, Benjamin said he may need a while to digest his unique Olympic experience from a unique Olympics. He rewatched the race for the first time two months later.

“I could literally walk anyone through that race, vividly, from my standpoint, and tell them what I was thinking between every single hurdle,” he said. “Just to watch it back from somewhat of a third-person point of view, and mesh that with the first-person point of view that I myself have, I think that was really important.”

By December, he fully processed the 46-second race, plus everything surrounding it in Japan.

“It took me a long time to come away from not only my event, but the fact that we were in Tokyo for so long, and all I saw was my roommates, and that’s it,” said Benjamin, who stayed with his Southern California roommate Michael Norman, plus four more U.S. track and field athletes. “It wasn’t much of an experience there. Being in a bubble for two and a half weeks, it was rough coming home. It was almost like nothing happened. Add that to the whole mental aspect of coming down from the race.”

Last week, Benjamin returned to Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium to contest the 400m hurdles for the first time since the Games. He won, in a lower-level meet lacking the world’s other top hurdlers.

Then he flew to Doha, where he is among the headliners for the first top-level Diamond League meet of the season this Friday (broadcast info here). Five of the top six men from the Olympics are in the field. Warholm is the missing person. He and Benjamin are unlikely to meet before the world championships in July in Eugene, Oregon.

Benjamin has fond memories of Eugene. It’s where, on a rainy Friday in June 2018, he won the NCAA 400m hurdles title as a USC junior in what was, at the time, tied for the second-fastest time in history with Edwin Moses. It was the world’s best time in nearly 36 years. In the four years since, four different men combined to run faster on nine occasions, including Benjamin.

It’s easy to fixate on times in sprinting, especially in Benjamin’s event. That’s not how Benjamin looks at it.

“I can’t really put a solid time on everything [this season] because I didn’t know how fast I was going to run last year,” he said. “Putting a number on it is doing a disservice to myself.”

Beating Warholm’s world record — 45.94 seconds — is not the primary goal this summer.

“A gold medal is definitely more important to me,” said Benjamin, who also took silver to Warholm at his previous world championships appearance in 2019. “Winning in Oregon, winning at home, will be somewhat more gratifying than breaking the world record and not winning at home.”

Benjamin said he and Warholm lost spoke in August, a cordial conversation before the closing 4x400m relay in Tokyo. Warholm told Benjamin they should both be proud of the 400m hurdles final, and that he wished Norway could field a relay team. Benjamin then went out and anchored the Americans to gold.

Their names were linked again last month. Norwegian media reported that Warholm turned down an appearance fee offer of around $31,000 to compete on May 28 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, where Benjamin will run. Benjamin is a Nike athlete, and almost all prominent Nike athletes, especially American ones, compete at Pre. Warholm is sponsored by Puma.

Warholm reportedly declined because of the nine-time-zone travel from Norway that would interrupt his last important training stretch leading up to worlds in July and the European Championships in August. He needed more time to get into competitive shape.

Benjamin saw the Norwegian report. He respected Warholm’s strategy while noting his different approach in flying to Tokyo and then Doha these past two weeks. Then again, Benjamin has to be ready earlier in the season to qualify for worlds at next month’s USATF Outdoor Championships, whereas Warholm has a bye into the championships.

“He’s his own person. He knows what’s best for him,” Benjamin said. “If he feels as though coming over here to compete right now isn’t ideal for him, then that’s a decision him and his coach, I guess, they stand by.”

Warholm has yet to race this season. Last year, his first race was June 4, and his first 400m hurdles was July 1 (a world record). Warholm is expected to race at another Diamond League meet, Oslo’s Bislett Games, on June 16. That date doesn’t fit Benjamin’s schedule this year because that would mean transatlantic flights the week before the USATF Outdoor Championships.

“If Oslo wasn’t in June, and there was no importance of a major championship in the year, for the right dollar amount, I would get on the plane and go over there,” Benjamin said. “I hear Oslo is nice anyway, so Bislett Games, there’s no problem for me whatsoever.

“That’s initially what we get paid to do and what people look forward to, seeing us race. If I have the opportunity to elevate my event in the sport for the upcoming generation so that they have it a lot better than we did, why not? Because that’s what I feel like is important to the sport and to the fan base.”

Before last summer, Benjamin had in mind another goal: drive the 400m hurdles world record so far down that it would be untouchable. Then focus on another event, probably the 200m, even if only for one year.

That’s still in play. He’s just going to have to run a lot faster now.

“Things definitely have to align, and everything has to go well,” he said. “But I would, of course, run the 400m hurdles again at the Olympics.”

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

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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.

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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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