Karsten Warholm after his world 400m hurdles record in Oslo (© Matthew Quine / Diamond League AG)
Karsten Warholm might have had Rai Benjamin’s recent run at the US Olympic Trials in mind as he took to the track in Oslo, but at the forefront of his thinking was the hard work he had put in to get to that point, and an intention to enjoy every moment.
Just 46.70 seconds after the gun went at the iconic Bislett Stadion on Thursday evening, the two-time world champion had produced quite the moment to savour.
The home crowd of 5000 went wild as the Norwegian star broke the world 400m hurdles record, taking 0.08 off the mark set by Kevin Young at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, three and a half years before Warholm was even born. As fans cheered their congratulations, Young too joined in on the action and spoke with his world record successor a short while after the all-time list had been rewritten.
“He was happy for me, and I think he knew that it was time,” Warholm said, with the magnitude of his performance beginning to sink in. “But what can you say? It’s a record that is older than me. I don’t think this record will stand as long as his record, but it’s just amazing.”
Young’s record had been under threat for a while and when the USA’s world silver medallist Benjamin ran 46.83 in Eugene five days earlier, it appeared to be a matter of who would break it first. But there was no pressure felt by Warholm as he prepared for his 400m hurdles season debut. Sitting with his coach Leif Olav Alnes the day before the Bislett Games, Warholm seemed relaxed and ready.
“We could be sitting here being all serious and just scared of tomorrow but instead we are trying to have fun,” explained the 25-year-old. “We are just going out there and having fun, and of course trying to be at our best level, but we shouldn’t let the pressure get in our way.
“That is something that Leif has taught me, that you should never let the pressure get in the way for you to be the best version of yourself.”
With great wisdom
Not only do Warholm and Alnes have a strong athlete-coach relationship, they are also great friends and the conversation on the eve of his world record was full of laughs and stories.
“I think we communicate really well,” said Alnes. “There is not a thing in the world I am afraid to ask him or tell him – this is so comforting. We know that we want the best. He is looking after me – I am the old guy, he tells me there are no cars coming so now you can cross the street. The app world, smart phones, all those types of things. I think we are very strong together.
“So many times people have said I am a young soul in an old body and it is vice versa for you,” Alnes added, looking at Warholm. “I feel extremely privileged to work with him. When I met him, he was 20. I was amazed – how can so much wisdom get into the head of a 20-year-old? I am very, very impressed.”
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The feeling is clearly mutual. Their relationship, and the start of a new chapter on Warholm’s journey to making 400m hurdles history, began in 2015, when Warholm – the 2013 world U18 octathlon champion and 2015 European U20 decathlon silver medallist – decided to switch his focus from multi events to the single one-lap discipline.
“I figured what I liked even more than being a multi evener was to win and I wanted to go to the Olympics,” said Warholm, reflecting on that moment. “That’s how we got into the 400m hurdles. It was Leif’s suggestion in the first place and I just tagged along because in the same way I loved doing all events, I also loved doing the 400m hurdles.”
Given his success in the event, it is easy to understand why. In 2016, the first year in which the 400m hurdles was his focus, Warholm started off by clocking 49.62 to break the Norwegian record. As the year went on he made the European final, became an Olympic semifinalist and revised his PB to 48.49.
The following year he became the world champion, clocking 48.35 in the London rain to get gold. Was it a bit of a whirlwind, achieving so much in such a short amount of time? “Yes but no,” Warholm replied. “Leif was the first to say that I would be able to win the World Championships and I actually believed him.”
Alnes joked: “They said it should take five years, but there was something on the paper so we thought it said 0.5 years. There must have been something wrong with the printer!”
That was just the start. After improving his best to 47.64 in 2018 when winning European gold, Warholm retained his world title in Doha in 2019 and, running 46.92 in Zurich, he moved to second on the world all-time list. There he stayed – having improved that mark to 46.87 in Stockholm in August 2020 – until Benjamin pushed him down a place the weekend before Warholm lined up in Oslo, just a few weeks out from the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Rivalries and Olympic aims
Warholm may have some lofty ambitions but he doesn’t allow himself to become overwhelmed by them. Just as the performances by his rivals motivate, rather than intimidate, him.
“I think the things that motivate you can also create some fear,” he said. “And I refuse to make my living and what I am working and striving towards become my fear.
“Your competitors push you, of course, but I have been sticking to our plan and focusing on Tokyo, and I am still going to focus on Tokyo but it is very nice for the confidence to break the world record. The 400m hurdles for both men and women, it’s a big event right now and I’m really happy to be able to be a part of it. We are here to entertain and these duels and head-to-heads, they are going to be something for everybody to remember.
"It might take another world record to win the Olympics. There are such a lot of great guys out there at the moment who will all be aiming to do it and win gold. I am happy that there is such great competition."
He also believes he has more to give.
“I felt like it was the perfect moment,” he explained, reflecting on his world record. “I had my home crowd here and it is the biggest happening in Norway since the start of the pandemic. Everything was set for me to do big things but at the same time, I think I was able to keep focused on the things that I knew that I had to do. You don’t think about the world record as you are going around, it’s the gun shot and then you just go and do the thing that you have been working really hard for. I had the best training winter of my whole life and I have taken big steps and now I am here to push it even further.”
The race feedback from coach will help to identify how he might do that. Asked whether he felt emotional seeing Warholm’s world record performance, Alnes replied: “I was happy. I am at work, so I am doing my nerd thing. I film it, so I can analyse it. I can go back and see it without cutting angles or whatever, so I can get precise measurements and that’s my passion. I am always looking for errors that can be fixed but I won’t tell him today. Today is all joy, some ice cream maybe, and then tomorrow we have to get greedy again.”
Given what was unfolding in front of the camera lens, did he manage to capture the whole thing – there was no wobble?
“I’m very calm, but it wobbled afterwards,” he said. “In London (2017 World Championships) I lost the last two hurdles because Amalie (Warholm’s training partner and Norwegian record-holder Amalie Iuel) was screaming. This time I said ‘you don’t dare to do that before he has finished!’. But I like it when people show emotions. I am very happy, but I am just controlling it.”
There was no hiding Warholm’s understandable emotion as he crossed the finish line and saw 46.70 on the clock, letting out a roar before sinking down to his knees.
“I'm going to enjoy this moment,” he said. “To be able to do it in front of my home crowd, it's something for the books. I'm going to remember this forever. One day I'm going to sit in my chair, being old and eating soup, and I'm going to think about this moment where I was young and strong and able to do these kinds of things. I'm very happy and humbled to be able to create this history.
“I also want to thank my coach,” he added. “It's very special. I think just by his presence you can tell that this is a guy that is very good to have on your team.”
Jess Whittington for World Athletics