TOKYO — The 400-meter hurdles field had just settled into the starting blocks at Olympic Stadium on a brutally hot early Tuesday afternoon.
Norway’s Karsten Warhold, the World champion and pre-race co-favorite, nervously shrugged his shoulders twice and then turned to his left, looking back at Team USA’s Rai Benjamin, the other co-favorite, one lane behind him.
Warholm wouldn’t see Benjamin again for another 46 seconds.
Warholm triumphed in an Olympic final every bit as mind-blowing as advertised, becoming the first person to break 46 seconds in the event, finishing in 45.94 seconds.
Benjamin finished in 46.17, well under the previous world record of 46.70 the Norwegian set last month. Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos was clocked in 46.72, becoming the third fastest man in history yet had to settle for the bronze medal.
In less than a month Warholm has knocked nearly a second off what had been for parts of three decades one of the sport’s most unapproachable world records—Kevin Young’s 46.76 winning time at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
It was a mark that the longer it stood, the more untouchable it appeared.
Until recently, Bryan Bronson had come the “closest” with a 47.03 clocking in 1998. Kerron Clement was the fastest man this century, running 47.24 in 2005.
While Warholm won the 2017 World Championships, it was Benjamin who got the sport thinking Young’s record might be vulnerable after all.
After Benjamin ran 47.02 to win the 2018 NCAA title for USC, equaling Edwin Moses as the second fastest man ever, Young predicted he would take the world record to 45.9.
Benjamin only fueled the world record speculation when he opened the 2019 season running 44.31 over the flat 400 behind then roommate Michael Norman’s 43.45 at the Mt. SAC Relays.
But he picked up a heel injury in the lead up to the 2019 World Championships in Doha where Warholm defended his title 47.42 to 47.66.
Healthy again, Benjamin just missed the mark in winning the Olympic Trials uncontested in 46.83 on June 29. It was no long longer a question of if Young’s record would fall, only when.
Two days later, Warholm finally erased Young from the record book, running 46.70 at the Bislett Games in Oslo.
“I think it’s an event that has gone through a renaissance and in the women’s I think the record has been broken a couple of times in the recent years,” Warholm said referring to Olympic and World champion Dalilah Muhammad lowering the women’s world record twice in 2019 and then Sydney McLaughlin breaking the 52-second barrier, going 51.90 at the Olympic Trials.
“As for the men’s, it’s been something that we’ve been talking a lot about and there have been some guys that have been running the time, so I was able to track the new world record, so it was about time someone broke it, and I’m just happy to be him.”
Benjamin, however, refused to engage in the world record conversation.
“To be honest with you, I’ve been trying to avoid that question because the Norwegian media has been butchering me about that, they say I talk about it too much,” he said during the prelims. “I’m just here to win a gold medal for Team USA and for myself. I’m really ready. I am just focused on winning, that is it.”
In a sneak preview of the final only hours later, Warholm and Benjamin were paired in the same semifinal Monday night, the Norwegian unnecessarily surging in the final meters to edge the American 47.30 to 47.37.
“The final will be so strong,” Dos Santos said. “It will be the beautiful race and that’s good for everybody.”
And it was indeed a thing of beauty.
Warholm, running in lane 6, bolting at the gun, opened a sizable lead down the backstretch. Benjamin began to reel him in around the final turn and then pulled close over the ninth hurdle, almost even at the 10th and final hurdle and seemed to have momentum. But Warholm surged again and Benjamin could not respond.