Feature18 Jun 2017

Karsten Warholm – an ordinary, everyday, extraordinary athlete


Karsten Warholm en route to his surprise victory at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo (© Mark Shearman)

Norway’s 21-year-old man of the match at Thursday’s Bislett Games, 400m hurdles winner Karsten Warholm, will put everything on the line again in the sixth IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season at Stockholm’s 1912 Olympic Stadium.

“I wanted to stop when I got to the turn in Oslo, but the support kept me going,” he said.

“I just hope the crowd tomorrow will be somewhere near that.

“Winning in Oslo was so amazing – I just hope I can manage to keep the pressure up.”

The field is broadly the same as the one upon which this former decathlete inflicted an unexpected and exuberant defeat in Norway, although in place of the 31-year-old US Olympic champion Kerron Clement, who slipped to last place, there is an even more experienced US racer, the 34-year-old 2005 world champion Bershawn Jackson.

“I don’t usually look too much at the starting lists, because everyone has to run their own race,” Warholm said at a pre-event press conference.

“It’s a standard answer I know, but that’s the way it is.

“I know that if I run to my best I can be up there fighting with the best of them. I’m a bit tired, but let’s see.”

Although it is more than a year since Warholm gave up the decathlon for the 400m hurdles, he still looked, in the aftermath of his startling victory at Thursday’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo, like an athlete who had just completed a tenth and final event.

As the roars of acclaim reverberated around the Bislett Stadium after a race in which their boy from Ulsteinsvik had shown a field including Olympic champion Clement where to get off, he was unable to get to his feet for at least 10 minutes.

Naturally, meeting organiser Steinar Hoen, ubiquitous in his shiny suit, had already congratulated him in person. But even when guest of honour Ed Moses, a 400m hurdles legend, came down from on high to pat him on his still heaving shoulders and proffer a bottle of water, the 21-year-old remained floored.

His fledgling career, by contrast, had just been sent soaring.

In the build-up to this race, the Oslo organisers had done Warholm proud by producing an impressive poster setting up his meeting with the 31-year-old US athlete who has been a the top of his event for a decade.

Warholm had made giant strides in his first year as a 400m hurdler, reaching the semi-finals of the Rio Olympics and setting a national record of 48.49. His winter form – a national indoor 400m record of 45.96, plus a world indoor 300m hurdles best of 34.92 – also promised well.

That said, he was the slowest in the field on paper. And Clement, by the time he was 21, had already run 47.24 and earned his first world title.

Nevertheless, Warholm indicated what he was made of in the pre-event press conference at the City Hall where, sitting alongside Clement and Moses – the two-time Olympic champion who went 122 races unbeaten from 1977 to 1987 – he gave a spirited account of himself.

Despite the poster-boy treatment, the young Norwegian happily related how he had been taken round the centre of Oslo by members of the media and nobody had recognised him. “Having 50 people in the stand know you – that’s great. It’s more than enough. My time will come,” he said, adding: “I’ve got to impress them. My girlfriend is going to be watching on TV and everything.”

Within 24 hours he was on the front pages of Norway’s newspapers after a victory in which, to be honest, he appeared to have taken on board the advice that Moses said his mother always offered him during his career: “Get out fast, and run like hell!”

The reaction of Warholm’s mother, Kristine Haddal, to her son’s victory was from the same handbook: “It’s beyond words! It’s so exciting – he gave everything he had!”

Running in lane seven, with Clement one lane inside him, Warholm had made up the stagger on the lane eight runner before the halfway point of the back straight. Whatever happened, it seemed, he was not going to leave anything on the track other than his own exhausted body.

But as Clement tracked him to the final turn, the expected changeover of the lead did not happen. Indeed the Olympic champion, clearly not right, drifted back to eighth and last place as the man of the moment pushed on to lower his national record to 48.25.

“It’s a very good time for this time of year,” said Moses in measured fashion. “Karsten has a very good technique, he’s calm. But it needs a lot of experience to become a world champion.”

Warholm was in a waggish mood at the Stockholm Olympic stadium as he reflected on his big day back home.

“Ed Moses was talking in Oslo about there being 30 ways to make mistakes,” he said. “But I am trying to look at 30 ways to make it good. I want the hurdles to be my friend. Running is a great sport, and I don’t think you should complicate it too much.

“I never saw Clement getting past me all through the race. I think he didn’t make it perfectly over the seventh hurdle. I think he took Ed Moses’ advice and tried to make it more difficult – but I don’t know!”

Asked about his obvious exhaustion at the end, he added: “It always blows my mind how I am so tired after running the 400m or 400m hurdles. The other guys always seem to be smiling and walking away. And I’m thinking: ‘What did you guys just do?’”

But he felt that occasions such as his unexpected Oslo triumph were good for the sport.

“It’s what athletics needs,” he said. “Hard fights, races where you don’t know who is going to win.

“But I will try to be a bit humble because I know there are many guys that can run faster than me if they prepare well.”

And with that, he was off to the city centre with a couple of friends – an ordinary, everyday, extraordinary athlete.

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF