Sydney McLaughlin breaks the world 400m hurdles record at the Tokyo Olympic Games (© AFP / Getty Images)
The 400m hurdles isn’t always the main drawcard on the athletics programme, but it has been the shining star of the entire Tokyo Olympic Games for the past two days.
A day after Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin destroyed the men’s world record while staging one of the greatest races in history, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad combined to produce another dazzling duet in an equally historic women’s final.
By the time both women were crumpled on the track and gasping from the effort of their duel in the sun, they had demolished the record books.
McLaughlin, world record-holder since the US Olympic Trials in June where she smashed through the 52-second barrier for women in this event (51.90), was forced to run almost half a second faster to defeat Muhammad, the world champion and defending Olympic champion, and win her first Olympic gold medal.
This is the second consecutive global championship in which it has required both women to break the world record in order for one to triumph.
In the US six weeks ago, 21-year-old McLaughlin had defeated her rival relatively easily. Muhammad was still recovering after contracting Covid-19 earlier in the year and was not at her best. But she has made remarkable progress in the past six weeks to rise to a new standard which very nearly earned her a second consecutive Olympic title.
As is her habit, Muhammad blasted out of the blocks in today’s final and established an immediate lead, which she would not relinquish until the 10th and last hurdle.
McLaughlin made her move coming off the seventh hurdle but slightly mistimed her stride pattern to the eighth hurdle, which curtailed her momentum temporarily.
However, she put herself back on course over the ninth and then attacked at the 10th, coming over the barrier full of running to edge ahead of Muhammad and take the gold medal in 51.46*.
Muhammad also set a huge personal best time, dropping more than half a second from 52.16 to 51.58.
The former time was the world record just two months ago, but has been blown to smithereens not only by the two US athletes, but by bronze medallist Femke Bol, who also took a chunk from her personal best to set a European record of 52.03.
They are now the fastest three athletes in history in this event and two of them are 21.
In the past 24 hours, athletes aged 21 or under have won three gold medals and three silver medals, perhaps benefitting from the one year-postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games, which gave them an extra year to develop as senior athletes.
McLaughlin has certainly used that time wisely to find a way past Muhammad, one of the best athletes in the sport. She has been the coming thing in US athletics for at least five years and today she finally arrived.
“I'm absolutely delighted,” said McLaughlin. “What a great race. I'm just grateful to be out here celebrating that extraordinary race and representing my country.
"I saw Dalilah ahead of me with one to go. I just thought 'Run your race'. The race doesn't really start til hurdle seven. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had.”
Even so, she was astonished to see how fast they had run.
"I can't really (get) it straight in my head yet,” she said. “I'm sure I'll process it and celebrate later."
Muhammad has dominated this event for the past Olympiad and said she could not have done more in the race.
“I've had an amazing year and to finish with 51.5(8), shattering my personal best, is absolutely amazing,” she said.
“Just like the men's race, all three of our times would have won any Olympics, any other year. I'm so proud to be part of that history and even more proud of my teammate Sydney. I'm just happy it's a one-two final for USA, and today I'm happy with second.”
She said she had taken her lead from Warholm, who also attacked the race from the start, but held on to win.
"After the ninth hurdle, I thought, 'I'm about to win this',” Muhammad said.
"That wasn't to be, but I gave it everything I had, and I'm happy with it."
Bol said she also took advice from Warholm before the race.
“He said, 'ok, go out first', and that was my plan. What he does is amazing and it's great to see 400m hurdles at such a high level. That I can be part of it makes it even better.”
Her part in two unforgettable 400m hurdles races is secure.
Nicole Jeffery for World Athletics
|WOMEN'S 400m HURDLES MEDALLISTS|
|🥇||Sydney McLaughlin 🇺🇸 USA||51.46 WR|
|🥈||Dalilah Muhammad 🇺🇸 USA||51.58|
|🥉||Femke Bol 🇳🇱 NED||52.03 AR|
*Pending the usual ratification procedure