Karsten Warholm and Dalilah Muhammad in action in the 400m hurdles (© AFP / Getty Images)
Men's 400m hurdles
In 2016, Karsten Warholm was just settling into his first full year as a 400m hurdles specialist. Rai Benjamin, at 18 and two years Warholm's junior, had just wrapped up his first year of NCAA competition. In Tokyo they'll co-star in one of the Games' most eagerly awaited showdowns as two of the three fastest 400m hurdlers of all-time.
Warholm has been on a steady but consistent rise since 2016, a season capped by a sixth-place finish at the European Championships and a trip to the Rio Olympic semifinals. It would be the last time he failed to reach a final. And the last major championships where he wouldn't leave as the winner.
The Norwegian notched a surprise win at the 2017 World Championships and retained it two years later in Doha in what was already then one of the key face-offs of that entire season. In the Qatari capital, Warholm held off Benjamin for the second time in two back-to-back meetings. The set-up came in Zurich when the pair met for the first time, a clash that would witness two men breaking 47 seconds in the same race for the first time, Warholm's sizzling 46.92 to Benjamin’s 46.98. The Doha final wasn't as fast but the suspense was there, with Warholm finally pulling away in the waning stages.
Benjamin took it easy in 2020 but Warholm didn't, improving further to 46.87 in Stockholm, then the second fastest performance of all-time and just inches shy of the 46.78 world record Kevin Young set at the 1992 Olympic Games - almost four years before Warholm was born.
In 2021, Warholm went even faster in his very first race of the season, blazing to a 46.70 performance in Oslo on 1 July to finally eclipse Young's legendary performance. That was at least in part a reaction to Benjamin's stunning run at the US Olympic Trials just four days earlier, a 46.83 sizzler that moved him past Warholm, albeit briefly, into the No.2 spot all-time.
That too was a logical progression for Benjamin, who first made waves with a 47.02 run in 2018 before improving further to 46.98 in that Zurich clash the following year.
In any other year, an athlete arriving with a 47.34 season's best – which followed performances of 47.68, 47.57 and 47.38 – would make them a solid gold medal favourite. Yet those four successive South American records by Alison Dos Santos only make him the strongest contender for bronze this year from a growing list of athletes contributing to the renaissance the event is currently enjoying. Then again, that kind of consistent improvement works perfectly for the 21-year-old Brazilian who is admirably working his way into the role of potential spoiler.
Abderrahman Samba is also very much a part of that renaissance. In 2018, the 25-year-old Qatari also joined the sub-47 club with a sensational 46.98 victory at the Paris leg of the Diamond League. A slight injury slowed him in 2019 but he regrouped enough to take bronze on home soil at the World Championships. He took 2020 off and will arrive in Tokyo with a 48.26 season's best.
Others expected to be in the medal chase include Kyron McMaster, the fourth-place finisher in Doha, who improved the British Virgin Islands national record to 47.50 this season. Kenneth Selmon, the runner-up at the US Trials with 48.08, and Jamaican Jaheel Hyde, who improved his lifetime best to 48.18 in Kingston last month, could also figure in the medal hunt.
Keep an eye on Yasmani Copello of Turkey as well, a finalist at the last three World Championships and the silver medallist in 2017, who arrives with a 48.18 season's best.
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics
Women's 400m hurdles
The predictions that Sydney McLaughlin would be the next great female star of athletics began when she was in high school.
She qualified for the US Olympic team in Rio aged just 16, reaching the semifinals of the 400m hurdles to underline her potential, and she has grown in stature each year since.
At 20, she pushed compatriot Dalilah Muhammad to a world record at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, while setting the second-fastest time in history (52.23), and now at 21, she will arrive at the Tokyo Olympic Games as the world record-holder.
Her world record run of 51.90 at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene last month was spectacular but not surprising. With McLaughlin this has always seemed merely a matter of time.
She will be the gold medal favourite in Tokyo but this will be one of the highest quality events of the athletics competition, such is the talent that has gravitated to the “quarter-sticks” in recent years.
Muhammad, the reigning Olympic champion and 2019 female World Athlete of the Year after setting consecutive world records that year, has had a bumpier road to the Games. She contracted Covid-19 earlier this year which disrupted her preparation but still recorded a time of 52.42 at the US Trials, not far from her best of 52.16.
With another six weeks of training under her belt she is likely to be a more formidable foe in Tokyo.
Femke Bol forms the other part of a triumvirate of super talents in this event. The tall Dutchwoman, who is also 21, has made some big moves this year.
Undefeated over 400m hurdles in the Diamond League this season, Bol has reduced her personal best from 53.79 to 52.37 and now ranks fourth on the all-time list in this event.
These three have separated themselves from the pack in the Olympic field this year and are likely to decide the medals between them, particularly after Shamier Little (fifth on the all-time list with 52.39) did not survive the sudden-death US selection process.
Rio Olympic silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen of Denmark is another notable entrant but such has been the advance of the event over the last three years that she will need to step up to a new level to be in the medal hunt this time.
It’s hardly a fearless prediction to suggest that this will be the fastest women’s 400m hurdles race in history. All of the top three have already run faster this year than the Olympic record of 52.64 set by Melaine Walker in 2008 and it is likely that all will improve again in the cauldron of Olympic competition.
McLaughlin’s rise might have been preordained but she may have to lift again to secure victory in Tokyo.
Nicole Jeffery for World Athletics