2021 was a superb year for the 400 hurdles. The year saw no less than four world records and six athletes, three male and three female, produced faster times than what the world records had been at the start of the year.
The prodigy Sydney McLaughlin was the first to the party, breaking Daliah Muhammad’s record from the Doha 2019 World Championship. She was the first woman ever to break the 52 second barrier, running 51.90 on June 27 at the US Olympic Trials and beat the old world record by 0.26 seconds.
One day earlier Rai Benjamin had come mighty close to eclipsing the almost 29 year old record of Kevin Young, but he came up a meager 5 hundreds of a second short, when setting a new personal best of 46.83. Benjamin did not set a new world record, but he fired a loud warning shot to his competitors while dominating the US Trials winning the final by almost 10 meters.
July 1 Karsten Warholm answered by breaking Young’s world record as he ran 46.70 in Oslo. In the same race a 21 year old Brazilian, Allison dos Santos, set his fourth personal best of the year in the 400hurdles, running 47.38. Earlier in the year Kyron McMaster had run 47.50 when beaten by Rai Benjamin. Karsten Warholm had obliterated the 300 hurdles world best by more than half a second.
It was clear for all to see that the men’s 400 hurdles potentially could be the main event to follow during the upcoming Games in Tokyo.
About the same time on the women’s side the mouth-watering duel between Daliah Muhammad, who held the world record at the start of the year and had won gold in the 400 hurdles at the last Olympics as well as the last World Championships and the prodigy Sydney McLauglin, developed into a three-way competition as Femke Bol, a 21 year old Dutch athlete, kept making progress at an astounding pace.
During the initial parts of the season Muhammad had been battling a hamstring injury as well as Covid-19. Her season best coming into the Trials was 54.50. That she was able to cut more than two seconds of her season best to run 52.42, the third best result of her career at that point in time, was very impressive. Even as she was beaten decisively by McLaughlin, Muhammad qualified for the Games by wide margin.
At the end of 2018 Femke Bol was an aspiring 400 flat runner with a personal best of 54.33. In other words both Muhammad and McLaughlin were running a lot faster over the hurdles than Bol was running without hurdles. In May 2019 Bol did her first official 400 hurdles race producing a time of 58.12. However, her times would come down quickly and later that season she became European U-20 champion in the event. She also advanced from the heats to the semi-finals of the Doha 2019 World Championship. At the end of the 2019 season Bol’s personal best in the 400 hurdles was 55.32, more than three seconds slower than the PBs of McLaughlin (52.23) and Muhammad (52.16).
During the strange pandemic-affected season of 2020, Bol kept improving. She eventually lowered her record time to 53.79. However, even as she had halved the distance to the best in the world she was far from close to them.
2021 would be another season of explosive development for Femke Bol. During the course of the season she set more than a dozen personal bests. Still it was only on July 4 during the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, that fans realized that she possibly could be a potential threat even for McLaughlin and Muhammad in Tokyo. Bol improved her best time by almost a second when she narrowly defeated Shamier Little 52.37 to 52.39. Both Bol and Little ran within half a second of the world record and became the 4th and 5th fastest female 400 hurdlers of all time.
Little had looked certain to make the team for Tokyo, but she just missed out after having stumbled badly when clearing the 8th hurdle of the final at the Trials.
Arriving at Tokyo both the men’s and women’s 400 hurdles seem destined to be spectacular. On the women’s side McLaughlin was the firm favourite, Muhammed the main challenger, but Bol was considered to be a contender for gold and a likely medalist.
On the men’s side, Warholm was the favourite, Benjamin the main challenger and there were several contenders like dos Santos, Samba and McMaster who would have been among the main favourites for more or less any of the past editions of the 400 hurdles at the Olympic Games.
None of the finals disappointed. The men went first and set the standard. Warholm went out hard and built a lead, but Benjamin in the lane inside him never let him get to far ahead. As Warholm switched down to 15 steps between the last two hurdles, Benjamin was almost alongside him, trailing by less than a meter. Warholm hit the final hurdle well and pulled away from Benjamin to win by a couple of meters. Behind them dos Santos finished fast to grab the bronze.
Warholm ran 45.94 to win and became the first ever to go below 46 seconds. He improved his world record by 0.76 seconds. Benjamin ran 46.17, but even as he went 0.61 seconds faster than what the world record had been a couple of months earlier, he had to settle for the silver medal. The time of the bronze medalist, dos Santos, 46.72, was faster than what had been the world record at the start of the year. The fourth and fifth place finishers, McMaster (47.08) and Samba (47.12) would have won gold at every other Olympics other than the 1992 and 2020 editions. It was a 400 hurdles race for the ages.
It was some act for the women to try to follow the very next day. Muhammad lit up the track with her usual fast start in lane 7 and led the charge entering the home straight, but only a couple of meters behind her was McLaughlin in lane 4 and Bol in lane 5. Muhammad led over the last flight, but McLaughlin was looming large on the inside and thundered past on the run to the line to win by less than a meter. Bol in third was some 4 meters behind the winner.
Both McLaughlin and Muhammad was well under McLaughlin’s world record from the US Olympic Trials and Bol ran faster than what the world record had been at the start of the year.
The men’s race seems to have gotten the most attention. In a way this is understandable as Warholm broke the 46 seconds barrier and obliterated his own world record by 0.76 seconds. He went 0.84 second faster than Kevin Young did in Barcelona 1992. Even so, it is worth considering that at the end of the 1992 season the men’s record stood at 46.78 and the women’s at 52.94. The women’s record has been improved by 1.48 seconds from 1992, while the men’s have only been improved by 0.84 seconds. Furthermore Muhammad and McLaughlin has between them improved the world record by 0.88 seconds, which is more than Warholm has done. All things considered I am not really sure that the men’s race in Tokyo is worthy of much more attention than the women’s.
Considering the scale of the achievements in Tokyo it would be easy to assume that most of these athletes are at the pinnacle of their careers and are unlikely to ever be this fast again. However, examining the age of the athletes in question it becomes apparent that it is far from sure that this is the case.
Muhammad is the least young, at 31. Samba recently turned 26 while Warholm is 25. Benjamin and McMaster is 24, McLaughlin is 22 and dos Santos and Bol are both 21. The majority of these athletes are not even 25 years old. As this is the case it should be obvious that there is a chance we can see even faster times during the next few years.