The greatest races ever run: reliving scorchers from Tokyo

Published on Dec 02, 2021 11:00 PM IST

The World Athletics athletes of the year, Karsten Warholm and Elaine Thompson-Herah, were involved in two dramatic, explosive races at the Olympics. I was there.

Karsten Warholm (L) and Elaine Thompson-Herah.(Reuters)
Karsten Warholm (L) and Elaine Thompson-Herah.(Reuters)
ByAvishek Roy, New Delhi

For a few seconds before the start of the women’s 100m final, Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium was suddenly plunged into darkness. The strange silence of the vast, empty and unlit stadium was interrupted only by the murmurs of the journalists in attendance and the gleam of their laptop screens.

Then music came on the stadium speakers and a strip of light, dancing with geometric patterns, expanded into a column across the 100m strip of the stadium's track. A dramatic new way to introduce a dramatic race–the women's 100m final. As the lights found the athletes and the lineup was announced, two names stood out. On lane 4 was defending champion Elaine Thompson-Herah, who had done the 100-200 sprint double in Rio. Next to her, on lane 5, Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, the two-time 100m Olympic champion and reigning world champion, in her inimitable flaming yellow and fiery red hair. That this would be a duel between the two Jamaicans was a foregone conclusion.

In the lead up to Tokyo, Fraser-Pryce was the talk of the town. "Mommy Rocket" had come to Tokyo bidding for a third 100m gold–three years after her first in Beijing–and taking aim at Florence Griffith Joyner’s world record (10.49s). In June, at a meet in Kingston, she clocked 10.63s becoming the second fastest woman in history behind Griffith Joyner. At the Jamaican Olympic trials, she had beaten Thompson-Herah in both the 100m and 200m races. At 34, she was chasing to become the oldest individual Olympic sprint champion in history.

A little while ago on the field, another fierce competition had raged between two compatriots, Daniel Ståhl and Simon Pettersson of Sweden, in the discus throw. Stahl, with a throw of 68.90m in his second attempt, led the field but Pettersson pushed him all the way, eventually settling for silver (67.39m). They celebrated wildly, draped in Swedish flags. They sang, and danced around the stadium and screamed: "We are the Swedish vikings!

Now the stage was set for the two Jamaican compatriots and track superstars.

Fraser-Pryce exploded off the blocks and Thompson-Herah was on her toes. As expected, they were shoulder to sinewy shoulder, muscling through the hot and humid Tokyo air. Even before the halfway mark, the two had pulled away from the rest. By the 60m mark, one stride at a time, half a foot length at a time, Thompson-Herah began to accelerate away from the legendary Fraser-Pryce.

With an astonishing surge of power, Thompson-Herah sped towards the finish line, now the gap between her and her Jamaican rival wide. She could finish the race Usain Bolt style, she had so much of a lead, pointing to the clock as she went past the finish line. 10.61s--a new Olympic record and the second fastest time ever.

Thompson-Herah screamed in joy while Fraser-Pryce stood there, hands on her hips, in stony disbelief.

And just like that Thompson-Herah became the fastest living woman on the planet. She then won the 200m race (21.53s) becoming the first woman to sweep the 100 and 200 meters at consecutive Olympic Games. She capped her Olympic campaign with a third gold medal teaming up with her Jamaican teammates for the 4x100m title, setting another national record with 41.02s.

Asked about a third double at the Paris 2024 Olympics like Usain Bolt, Thompson-Herah said, “I just take it year by year. I went very close to the world record so you know, anything is possible. No spikes hanging up any time soon!"

Karsten Warholm

As special as the women's 100m final was, it was still not the most incredible race in Tokyo. That privilege belonged to a race that can claim to be among the most spectacular races ever run. It was the men's 400m Hurdles final, where Norway's Karsten Warholm smashed the world record to smithereens with a barely believable 45.94s, the first time that 400 Hurdles had been run under 46 seconds. Karsten had already broken the previous world record, that had stood for 29 years, Kevin Young's 1992 mark of 46.78, a month before the Olympics. In Tokyo he decided to do something even more insane.

“First when I saw the time, I was like, ‘this must be a mistake’. I didn’t see that one coming and I didn’t see the victory coming before crossing the finish line,” said Warholm, holding the male athlete of the year trophy presented by World Athletics President Sebastian Coe on Wednesday.

The race was made special not just by Warholm, but by how his rivals pushed him. USA's Rai Benjamin went toe-to-toe the whole way, finishing with a 46.17s, which would have broken Warholm's earlier world record of 46.70s. Brazil's Alison dos Santos finished third with 46.72s, better than Young's 1992 world mark. Five of the top ten Olympic timings in the history of the event was recorded just at that one race.

“It was a very intense race. I knew the American, Brazilian and all other guys were really chasing me, so I always thought it was going to be hard and I didn’t know what was going on behind me. I was just fighting all the way to the finish line. When I realised 45.94s was the reality, I was thinking, this is not too bad. I’ll take it!” said Warholm.

“It was probably the best race in Olympic history. I don’t even think Bolt’s 9.64 can beat that. I ran 46.1 and lost. That’s the nature of the beast,” Benjamin commented after the final in Tokyo.

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