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.”
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.
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