TOKYO — When moment meets all-around excellence, when the best in the world bring out the best in each other, we get to bear witness to a thing of athletic power, grace, beauty and performance such as we saw Tuesday in the men’s 400 hurdles, a race run at the Summer Olympics for 120 years but never — never — like this one.
This was the greatest 400-meter hurdle race in human history.
That is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole.
This was, perhaps, the sole reason the Tokyo Olympics had to happen.
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Karsten Warholm of Norway raced to victory in 45.94 seconds. Rai Benjamin of the United States took second, in 46.17. Each of those times broke the prior world record, held by Warholm, 46.7, set just four weeks ago. Alison dos Santos of Brazil went 46.72 for third. That time beat the prior world record, and as of Monday morning the standing Olympic record, 46.78, set by American Kevin Young in Barcelona in 1992.
The 400 hurdles is an event of such stamina and difficulty that Young’s 46.78 stood for nearly 30 years before Warholm broke it on July 1, lowering it by only eight-hundredths of a second.
Benjamin shattered that mark by more than three-quarters of a second. And did not win!
Because Warholm, for the first time in human history, dropped into the 45s.
Edwin Moses won 122 straight 400-meter hurdles races in the 1970s and 1980s. His best time: 47.02.
“I never in my wildest imagination thought this would be possible,” Warholm said.
“It’s insane,” Benjamin said, adding, “I would say it was the best race ever in Olympic history. That’s where I would rank it.”
For his part, dos Santos said, “Amazing, incredible, so strong, so hard. That race is so wonderful.”
As the race is studied and dissected — and it will be, from any and every angle — these factors surely will get a close look: the new techno-shoes that have wrought significant change upon the sport and, as well, a super-springy track here at Olympic Stadium deliberately designed to produce fast times.
All the same, the races have to be run. Warholm said, “A lot of the time I’ve been asked about the perfect race. I said it didn’t exist. But this is the closest I’ve ever got.”
According to World Athletics scoring tables, a 45.94 400 hurdles is the equivalent of a 9.62 100 meters. Usain Bolt’s world record is 9.58; his Olympic record is 9.63.
More fun with numbers:
A 45.94 400 hurdles would be like running an open 400 in 42.75; that’s inside the world record, 43.03.
It’d be like going 25:50.26 for 10k; the world record is 26:11.
You get the point — 45.94 is stupid crazy amazing how-did-he-do-that fast.
Scarier, maybe — Benjamin said this race opens the doors to new psychological frontiers of what’s possible, just as in swimming, where times keep dropping: “I guess it’s 45.5 or bust from here on out.”
Among track junkies, the race immediately drew comparisons to epic Olympic moments in the past, notably Bob Beamon’s long jump in the thin air in Mexico City in 1968.
That’s not the most apt comparison, though, because that was a singular breakthrough.
This was two of the best ever doing it in one race, joined by a posse of four more with world-class credentials.
Six guys finished inside 48.
This, then, explains the true brilliance of the race, and points to the best comparison, the men’s 800 from the London 2012 Games, won by Kenya’s David Rudisha in a world-record 1:40.91.
Rudisha willed all the others in that race to, variously, a national record, a personal best or a season’s best.
In the same way, Warholm and Benjamin pushed everyone — with the exception of last-place finisher Alessandro Sibilio — to a continental or national record or season’s best.
“The last 20 meters I couldn’t even feel my legs,” Warholm said. “I had a crazy American on the inside coming to get me. I just ran for my life.”
Benjamin, who in a first interview was in tears at having lost but had come by a news conference a couple of hours later to understand not just the gravity but the majesty of the competition, responded with a smile, “I was coming. I just ran out of space. I felt my legs.
“It was a phenomenal race. What else can I say about it?”