TOKYO — Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang dubbed it a “superduellen,” or super duel. Dagbladet, another tabloid in Oslo, went with “gullduel” – golden duel.
In the weeks leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, it became one of the most highly-anticipated one-on-one matchups, both in Norwegian media and for track and field afficianados around the world: Norway’s Karsten Warholm, the world record-holder, vs. American Rai Benjamin, the third-fastest 400-meter hurdler of all-time.
And Tuesday’s final did not disappoint.
In the latest edition of one of track’s great individual rivalries, Warholm surged at the finish to win his first gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles, with a time of 45.94 seconds, a new world record. Benjamin, naturally, finished right behind him for silver, in 46.17 – which, sans Warholm, also would have been a world record.
Even bronze medal winner Alison dos Santos of Brazil almost broke the previous record of 46.72. He was two-hundredths shy of the 46.70 mark Warholm set last month.
“I think this was probably the best race – (no) that was the best race in Olympic history,” Benjamin said. “I don’t even think Usain Bolt’s 9.5 topped that. I mean, three guys pretty much broke the world record.”
Benjamin said he didn’t believe the times when he saw them appear on the scoreboard at Olympic Stadium. He saw Warholm’s time and thought “what the hell?” Then he saw his own time and thought “there’s no way.”
“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,” he said. “But I’m happy to be a part of history.”
Even the competitors who finished off the podium were left in awe.
Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, who finished fourth, was asked if there was a point in the race when he knew it was going to be fast.
“After the second hurdle,” he said.
It was the second time in two days that Warholm, 25, and Benjamin, 24, crossed the finish line almost in tandem, after sharing a semifinal heat Monday. And it will certainly not be the last time they meet, with both still in the prime of their careers.
“Rai and I have had a couple of duels before and we will probably have many more in the years to come,” Warholm told Dagbladet in an interview in the days leading up to Tuesday’s final. “I really think that for the interest, it is fantastic to have someone who fights like this.”
Over the past 12 months, Warholm has run two of the four fastest times ever, including a new world record of 46.70 at a Diamond League event last month. American Kevin Young had set the previous record in 1992, three years before Warholm was born.
But Benjamin has been consistently dominant, too. He won silver at the 2019 world championships, then ran the third-fastest time ever at the U.S. Olympic trials. Together, he and Warholm owned 13 of the 20 fastest marks of all-time entering Tuesday.
“No one has run this fast, at the same time, in history,” Benjamin said.
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The Southern Cal product described their relationship earlier this week as a competitive rivalry, but not a personal one. He said the two men chat in the call room before races and have a mutual respect for one another.
“I feel like the media sometimes tries to pin me against him, but it’s not really like that at all,” Benjamin said. “I mean, he’s a really cool guy. We just want to go out there and have fun and run fast times.”
And on Tuesday, in world-record-smashing fashion, they did.