The Tokyo gathering of the world’s finest track athletes provided one Olympian performance after another. It seemed the runners were intent on restoring their sport to its former prestige.
It will take a while to overcome a generation of performance-enhanced performances, but these Olympics may have aided the process. And wasn’t it refreshing that we didn’t hear of any medals being returned due to failed drug tests?
If you missed Karsten Warholm’s otherworldly run in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, you missed what might have been the most stunning race this columnist has ever witnessed.
Billed as a match race with USA’s Rai Benjamin, that’s exactly how the race unfolded. Warholm went out fast, and Benjamin tracked him. Their steps remained perfect; they barely broke stride over the hurdles. Entering the stretch, Benjamin pulled up on Warholm’s shoulder, poised to pass.
He never did. The Norwegian somehow found an extra gear, which is nearly impossible to do after running 360 meters and clearing 10 hurdles. But Warholm dug deep and reached a place no one had ever gone before.
As he crossed the line and the time flashed 45.94, my first thought was that the clock had malfunctioned. But no. Incredibly, Warholm had destroyed his own world record by an astounding 0.76 seconds.
For perspective, this feat rivaled Bob Beamon’s historic long jump at Mexico City in 1968.
“My coaches keep telling me this could be possible with the perfect race,” Warholm told ESPN.com, referring to breaking the 46-second barrier. “But it was hard to imagine it because it’s a big barrier, and it’s something you don’t even think about. I still can’t believe it. It’s the biggest moment of my life.”
He finished in 46.17, breaking Warholm’s former world mark of 46.7. “If you would’ve told me that I was going to run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room!” Benjamin told ESPN.com. “I’m happy to be part of history.”
One night later, in another “match race,” Americans Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad faced off in their own 400-meter hurdles race. Muhammad, the defending Olympic gold medalist, lost her world record to McLaughlin at the US Olympic Trials in June.
Of course, there was no way this race could rival the men’s final. Incredibly, it did.
As usual, Muhammad went out fast, tracked by McLaughlin. Both rolled smoothly over the hurdles, and by the top of the final straight, McLaughlin had caught Muhammad.
McLaughlin passed Muhammad in the stretch, but it took a world record to do so: 51.46, clipping an amazing .44 seconds off her previous record. Incredibly, Muhammad also broke the old record, finishing in 51.58.
“To come home with silver after breaking a world record, it could be mixed emotions,” Muhammad told the Los Angeles Times. “But right now, I truly don’t feel that way. I’m truly proud of it, and I hope all the people back home are, too.”
McLaughlin acknowledged Muhammad’s role in her record.
“It’s really just iron sharpening iron,” she told the Times. “You need somebody who’s going to push you to be your best. I saw the time and I was just amazed, but not surprised.”
Athing Mu emerged as one of track’s coming stars, winning the women’s 800 meters in an American-record time of 1:55.21. She led from the start in becoming the first American to win the 800 since Madeline Manning in 1968. And she’s just 19.
“I knew this was where I was supposed to be at this point in time,” Mu told The New York Times. “As long as my mind was right, I was going to accomplish my goals.”
The 3M team of McLaughlin, Muhammad, and Mu wasn’t finished. They concluded their Olympics by teaming with the grand dame of the sport, 35-year-old Allyson Felix, in the 4x400-meter relay.
The rest of the world never had a chance. McLaughlin led off, celebrating her 22nd birthday by securing the lead. Felix ran the second leg, widening the lead to about 15 meters. Muhammad ran the third leg and removed all doubt, totally dusting the competition. Mu anchored, and we got to see her flawless running form in full flight.
That gold medal, along with her bronze in the open 400, gave Felix 11 Olympic medals in her career, making her the most decorated American track Olympian of all time.
“To be surrounded by these women in that moment was really special,” Felix told ESPN.com. “I just came out really at peace and wanting to soak it all in. It was really cool to come together, to get to close out the Olympic Games, and, for me, my Olympic career.”
And it was a cool way to wrap up a week of scorching performances.