October 28, 2020

Young’s old record under siege

During the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Kevin Young flew around the track in the men’s 400m hurdles final. Even as he clattered the last hurdle badly and finished the race with his right hand raised into the air in celebration, he obliterated the world record. His time of 46.78 seconds was the first sub-47 second result in the 400m hurdles.

Edwin Moses, the previous record holder and the greatest legend the event has ever known, had set four world records, gone undefeated through 122 races, between 1977 and 1987, won two Olympic and two World Championship gold medals, but after the 1992 Olympics his world record was gone.

Between 1976 and 1987, Moses won every global championship he got to compete in. Based on this, it seems a fair assumption that his medal collection would have been substantially larger, if the World Championship had been held every second year during his prime and if he had not been forced to sit out the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the Western boycott.

The 25 seasons following Young’s world record saw many spectacular athletes compete in the event. Félix Sánchez, Bryan Bronson, Derrick Adkins, Stéphane Diagana, Angelo Taylor, Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson were all athletes of phenomenal quality, yet Kevin Young remained the only one to have gone faster than 47 seconds and Edwin Moses sat in second place on the world all-time list almost 35 years after running 47.02 on his 28th birthday in Koblenz in 1983.

25 years and four days after the 1992 Barcelona final, the 400m hurdles final of the London 2017 World Championships was run in atrocious conditions. It was wet, cold and windy, even so the winning time of 48.35 was somewhat underwhelming.

Coming into the 2018 season the reigning world champion, Karsten Warholm’s personal best was an unremarkable 48.22, which he ran while losing to Kyron McMaster during the 2017 Diamond League final in Zurich.

Abderrahmane Samba, who had been injured coming into the championships, were in the fight for a medal approaching the final hurdle during the London 2017 final. He came into the 2018 season with a PB of 48.31.

Rai Benjamin set a new personal best of 48.33, while narrowly beaten by Eric Futch, in the 2017 NCAA final.

Based on their 2017 performances there were not many indications that these three athletes would soon be chasing the world record. However, as they stepped up their game throughout 2018, it became apparent that the world record was under siege.

The youngest in the group was the first to properly challenge 47 seconds. During the NCAA West Prelim, Benjamin broke 48 seconds for the first time running 47.98.

Only a couple of weeks later he ran 47.02 during a dominant win at the 2018 NCAA finals. This was the joint second fastest time ever. The time was even more impressive as it was accomplished in wet conditions.

The first time I became aware of Samba’s potential was during the 2017 Doha Diamond League. He kicked down the second hurdle, but even so he was ahead of world record pace jumping the seventh barrier. He tired badly, fighting the head wind down the home straight, to finish in a time of 48.44, but it seemed obvious that he was capable of going a lot faster in a perfect race.

During the 2018 season Samba was truly dominant. He remained unbeaten in the 400m hurdles and won six Diamond League events. Some three weeks after Benjamin had run 47.02, Samba delivered his answer by running 46.98 at the Diamond League meet in Paris. This made him the second athlete ever to break 47 seconds in the 400m hurdles.

Warholm continued his improvement throughout 2018. He set multiple personal bests, but was beaten decisively every single time he raced Samba. The highlight of his season was winning the European Championships in Berlin, setting his fourth and final 400m hurdles PB of the year, running 47.64.

Coming into 2019 outdoor season, track fans were anticipating something truly spectacular in the 400m hurdles and considering the talent on offer, this was understandable. The 23 year old, Samba, had broken 47 seconds. The 21 year old, Benjamin, had come very close to breaking 47 seconds. And Warholm, a rapidly improving 23 year old, had consistently been running below 48 seconds.

Even as, what was widely considered, the two main protagonists got injured during the season, it still did not fall far short on expectations.

Samba started his season in April, with a personal best of 44.60 in a 400m flat, in South Africa.

A couple of weeks later Samba romped home in 47.51 when he won the 2019 Asian Championships.

Benjamin impressed by lowering his 400m flat PB to 44.31 in California in April.

This set up a much anticipated duel between Samba and Benjamin at the Diamond League event in Shanghai in May.

Entering the home straight Benjamin led narrowly, but Samba moved ahead approaching the final hurdle and powered clear towards the finish line. The race had a striking resemblance to the races between Samba and Warholm during the 2018 season. Benjamin had run well below 48 seconds, but been soundly beaten by a faster finishing Samba.

Samba looked impressive beating Benjamin, however he would struggle with injuries the rest of the year.

In June 2019, Benjamin won the Diamond League 400m hurdles in Rome and Stanford by wide margins. In Stanford he finished like a train and still looked full of running after putting down a 47.16.

Rai Benjamin moved on to dominate the US championship with a winning time of 47.23 and got ready for a showdown with Warholm at the Diamond League final in Zurich.

Karsten Warholm impressed during the 2019 indoor season. He equaled Thomas Schönlebe’s European indoor record of 45.05 while winning the 400m flat during the European Indoor Championship in Glasgow, March 2019.

Outdoors, he started by winning the 400m hurdles in the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. He followed this up by winning the Diamond League event in Oslo, lowering Stéphane Diagana’s European record to 47.33 in the process.

This record he improved to 47.12, when he won in London, mid-July.

The Diamond League final in Zurich towards the end of August 2019, about a month before the Doha World Championships, felt like a showdown between two young titans. The race did not disappoint as both Warholm and Benjamin broke 47 seconds and became the second fastest and joint third fastest in the event of all time. It is the only 400m hurdles race where the runner up went below 47 seconds. In the end Warholm won narrowly 46.92 to 46.98.

Even as Warholm and Benjamin were only 0.14 and 0.20 behind the world record, their races were not flawless.

Benjamin hit the sixth hurdle. In an interview with Track and Field news early in October 2019, Benjamin described his Zurich outing as a “mechanically flawed race”.

Warholm’s late switch to fifteen steps before the ninth hurdle caused him to stutter step and slow down a fair bit.

Going over the eight hurdle Warholm was about 0.3ish seconds ahead of Young’s world record performance. At the ninth hurdle the advantage had declined to some 0.1ish seconds. The late decision to switch down to 15 steps, between hurdles eight and nine, plausibly cost Warholm more than the 0.14 seconds he finished behind the world record.

Considering that both Warholm and Benjamin had come close to the world record in Zurich, even if they had not run flawless races, there were a lot of buzz about the possibility of the event seeing a new world record during the Doha Championships.

Arriving at the World Championships in Doha it was well known that Samba had been struggling with injuries the entire summer. What was not widely known was that Benjamin too was carrying an injury. Some three weeks before his first race of the World Championships, Benjamin fell in training and sustained a painful heel bruise.

Even though he was able to pick up the bronze medal with a powerful finish, Samba looked like a shadow of his early season/2018-self. I do not know the full details of Samba’s injuries, but my impression is that he pulled off a superhuman feat getting on the podium in his home World Championships.

Benjamin was in a challenging position, about two meters behind Warholm, entering the home straight. I suspect that it would have been difficult for him to catch up to and pass Warholm no matter what, but Benjamin’s trail leg touched the last hurdle and threw him off balance for a couple of steps and this left him with no chance of catching the winner.

Picking up a silver medal while carrying an injury as a 22 year old, at a global championships, was an impressive performance. However, even though Benjamin was beaten in his signature event, he still left Doha with a gold as he anchored the US 4 x 400m relay to a clear victory.

Warholm defended his 2017 title, but his winning time in the final of 47.42 was 0.64 seconds behind the world record. Some considered this a disappointment, at least when taking the lofty expectations for the event into account.

A Championships final in October is hardly conducive for world records, but that is precisely what we got in the ladies race. Dalilah Muhammad held Sydney McLaughlin off, in an epic duel, to take the gold in a world record time of 52.16.

An interesting fact is that both Samba and Benjamin has switched their allegiances.

Benjamin was born in the US, by Antiguan parents, his father is the renowned cricket player, Winston Benjamin, who played 21 Tests and 85 One Day International for the West Indies. Growing up he lived some years in New York and some with an uncle in Antigua. He represented Antigua and Barbuda at the World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine in 2013 and also at the 2015 World Relays. He was offered to compete for Antigua during the Rio Olympics, but turned this down and instead requested a transfer to represent the USA, which was approved by World Athletics in October 2018.

Samba was born in Saudi Arabia, but choose to compete for the land of his father Mauritania. In 2015 he moved to Doha and in 2016 he became eligible to compete for Qatar.

The anticipations could hardly have been any higher as the 2020 season was approaching. However the world wide pandemic which postponed the Tokyo games, has made this a bizarre year.

Samba did not race in 2020. Benjamin did a couple of hugely impressive flat races. He set a 300m indoor PB of 32.35 in February.

He followed this up by running a 10.03 100m during the outdoor season.

Warholm produced a fantastic season. He started his outdoor season by demolishing Chris Rawlinson’s 300 hurdles world best. Rawlinson’s 34.48 was beaten by 0.70 seconds as Warholm ran 33.78, after having hit a hurdle hard while warming up.

A couple of months later he ran 47.10 in Monaco. Departing from his usual style, he started slower looking more controlled in the early part of the race, but finished much faster than he had ever done before. This is the only race I am aware of, where he ran faster in the home straight than Young did in Barcelona 1992.

One and a half week later, in somewhat cold and windy condition in Stockholm, Warholm returned to his old style of blasting out of the starting blocks. We believe that he was some 2ish tenths of a second ahead of world record pace coming over the ninth hurdle. However he switched down to 15 steps between hurdles nine and ten and lost some momentum as he slammed into the last hurdle. Even so, he produced a new European record of 46.87, only nine hundredths behind the world record.

Only about 90 minutes after just having missed the world record, Warholm laced up his shoes and entered the track to run the 400m flat in Stockholm. Running uncharacteristically conservatively, only in about fifth at halfway, he moved up around the bend, taking the lead entering the home straight and powered away to a clear victory in 45.05.

The organizers of the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava sent a private jet to pick him up in Oslo. They even rearranged the schedule, hoping it would be a little warmer earlier in the evening, to maximize his chances of breaking the world record. However, the rewards were meager as Warholm ran his worst time of the season, winning in 47.62.

He moved on the Berlin where he won again running 47.08.

His last chance to break the world record, in a mainstream event, during the 2020 season was the Diamond League meeting in Rome. Again he produced a very fast time running 47.08.

In a much shortened season due to Covid-19, Karsten Warholm put together one of the greatest 400m hurdle campaigns ever. His average time for his five 400m hurdles races is below 47.15 and he achieved this while winning all his races completely unchallenged.

Four of his five races were faster than all but one of Moses’ best time from his entire career. The same holds true if we compare Warholm’s season with Young’s or Samba’s careers this far.

Considering that Warholm is a double world champion, that he has improved every single year since he made the move from the multi-events to become a hurdler, and the stability he displayed at an exalted level throughout the 2020 season, some will see him as a huge favourite for the Tokyo Olympics.

The reality is more complex. Samba was winning with ease throughout 2018. He ran 46.98 as a 23 year old. If he is injury free and can prepare properly it is impossible to know how good he could be for the 2021 season. In an interview with the Olympic channel he indicated that he was still learning and he would not rule out at some point being able to break 46 seconds.

Benjamin took it a step further in his interview with the Olympic channel, saying:

“It is possible to run 45 seconds of the 400m hurdles. So I think it can be done.”

To run a 45 seconds 400m hurdles sounds unrealistic, even for athletes as talented as these. However, the one with the best shot of accomplishing it could be Rai Benjamin, as he has shown the best raw speed. His 100m best of 10.03 is beyond impressive for a 400m hurdler and he ran 19.99 into a 0.6 headwind in the Paris Diamond League meet in 2018.

Another potential advantage for Benjamin is that he has already shown an ability to do twelve steps between the hurdles on the back straight. Edwin Moses always did 13 steps between all the hurdles and this is likely one of the causes of the stability of his performances. If you do not change your stride pattern, there are fewer ways to make mistakes.

However, many think that part of the secret to Kevin Young’s world record is that he ran twelve steps between hurdles three, four and five in the 1992 final.

Young was one of the taller world class hurdlers at 1 meter 93 centimeters (6ft 4 in) and in some races he even changed his stride pattern to eleven between hurdles. Below we have put together two videos we found online. Please note that in the second part of the video, we believe that Kevin Young is the athlete wearing yellow shorts who ran eleven steps between hurdle four and five, but does not seem to get close enough and clips the hurdle with his trail leg.

There has been five 400m hurdles races below 47 seconds. Warholm, Benjamin and Samba have combined for four of them. At the moment it seems entirely possible to break the current world record and not even win in Tokyo 2021.

Above we evaluated the three largest stars of the event the last few years, however there are others who are definitely capable of winning in Tokyo and also of developing to threaten the world record. One obvious example is Kyron McMaster.

McMaster beat Warholm in the Diamond League finals of 2017 and 2018. He ran 47.80 as a 20 year old in 2017 and 47.54 as a 21 year old in 2018. He struggled with injuries part of the 2019 season, but even so he almost picked up a medal in Doha 2019. He lost some momentum touching both the ninth and tenth hurdles and were collared shortly before the finish line by a fast finishing Samba.

That the bond between coaches and athletes can be exceptionally tight is a well-known fact. The Norwegian TV-Channel, NRK, is currently showing a documentary series covering Karsten Warholm and his coach Leif Olav Alnes. In episode four, Warholm highlights that he is completely dependent on Alnes.

Leif Olav Alnes is an eminent sport biomechanist who in Norway, often fondly is referred to as “doctor sprint”.

As you need a Norwegian IP-address to watch it and as they speak Norwegian, we have uploaded a small part to Youtube and added English subtitles.

The below video highlights the relationship between Rai Benjamin and one of his coaches, Joanna Hayes, the gold medal winner in the 100m hurdles from Athens 2004.

Kyron McMaster’s long time coach, Xavier “Dag” Samuels died in an accident when hurricane Irma hit the Virgin Islands in 2017.

McMaster seems to be in safe hands as, Lennox Graham, is his current coach. Even so, it would be completely natural if McMaster should need some time to get back to his very best after the loss of his former coach.

During the 2020 indoor season Kyron McMaster improved both his 300m (32.91) and 400m (45.84) indoor records. It is far from sure that Warholm, Benjamin and Samba will have it all their own way in 2021.

Young’s world record has gotten old. As a matter of fact it is the oldest male track record. Heading into 2021 there seems to be several guys running at a level where they consistently are able to challenge his record. Unless several of these youthful athletes should regress, it does not seem unlikely that they at some point will be engulfed in a battle which will push them into world record territory.

Nobody knows the future, and the fact that a record has stood the test of time, is a testament to its quality. However, based on the results of the last few years it does not seem bold to predict that Kevin Young’s world record is about to be eclipsed.

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad is a Norwegian freelance writer. He is mainly covering Athletics, Biathlon and other Winter Sports. In the past he has done work on odds and probabilities.

View all posts by Mathis Brorstad →

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