Warholm had created a sliver between them, but Benjamin had waited for this moment for two years, since their showdown at the world championships. Benjamin summoned a kick. Warholm summoned his, too, and the margin grew.
Tuesday morning under oppressive humidity at National Stadium, Benjamin broke his rival’s world record. He ended up with the silver medal, because Warholm did so too. Warholm crossed in an astonishing 45.94 seconds, lowering the mark he had set a month ago by .76 seconds. Benjamin finished in 46.17 seconds, which aside from one man would have radically reset the record, too.
Warholm, by official ranking the best track and field male athlete in the world, screamed when he saw the clock and ripped a hole in his singlet. Benjamin, a University of Southern California alum of Antiguan heritage, crouched on the ground and gulped for air, looking at the track with a shocked countenance framed by a white headband. He had run once around a track and over 10 hurdles faster than any man in history aside from the one next to him.
“It’s a lot to process,” Benjamin said. “I cried a little bit. It’s going to be a lot to process these next 24 hours. But I am really happy to be a part of history like this. That was the best race in Olympic history. I don’t even think Usain Bolt’s 9.5 topped that.”
That argument has merit. Brazilian bronze medalist Alison dos Santos finished in 46.72 seconds, which nearly broke Warholm’s previous record and would have obliterated Kevin Young’s, which stood from 1992 until Warholm seized it last month. Warholm and Benjamin ran faster than the 1956 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meters, without the hurdles. Six of the eight runners broke at least a national record. Participation bestowed honor.
“When people look up that race, they’re going to see my name,” said fourth-place finisher Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands.
In track and field circles, the race advanced the debate over where the line stands between human achievement and technology. Benjamin’s Nikes, like other company’s offerings, had a carbon-fiber plate, “which I hate, by the way,” Warholm said. The track’s vulcanized rubber granules made it feel “like no surface was there,” McMaster said. At National Stadium already, world records have fallen in the triple jump and 400-meters hurdles, along with a 33-year-old women’s 100-meters Olympic record.
Benjamin rejected the notion. He allowed that shoes and surfaces matter, but that advances in human capacity, not technology, had delivered Tuesday’s epic. Give him different shoes, he said, and he’ll run just as fast.
“No one in history is going to go out there and do what we just did,” Benjamin said. “Ever. It could be Kevin Young, Edwin Moses. All respect to those guys. But they cannot run what we just ran.”
What they had run defied belief, even for the participants. Warholm believed his old record would fall Tuesday as he and Benjamin pressured one another, but only to about 46.5 seconds. Benjamin had expressed belief the record would fall below 46 seconds someday. No one thought it would be Tuesday.
“If you would have told me I would run 46.1 and lose, I would probably beat you up and tell you to get out of my room,” Benjamin said.
And what if you had informed Warholm, prerace, the time Benjamin would run?
“I would have put myself on the first flight home,” Warholm said.
Warholm made his presence felt from the gun. Running one lane to the inside, Warholm could not see Benjamin, but Benjamin could see Warholm. Warholm wanted to stress him with a fast start. By the third hurdle, sooner than he expected, he had passed dos Santos and Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba.
“I knew I had gotten them out to probably a place they didn’t want to be,” Warholm said. “I didn’t want to be there myself, because it hurts.”
Warholm had not shaken Benjamin, though. Benjamin saw nothing for the first three hurdles other than his own lane. Benjamin looked up after clearing the third. “All right,” Benjamin thought. “I’m in this.”
Before the fourth hurdle, Benjamin fell out of his rhythm and chopped his steps. As a result, his stride remained off leading into the fifth hurdle. He knew Warholm had created space between them. Once he landed over the fifth, with the turn ahead, he thought, “I’m going to get this guy.”
Benjamin saw the distance begin to close. Between the ninth and 10th hurdles, Warholm ran 15 paces rather than 13, knowing the pressure to close was on Benjamin, wanting to conserve for the final sprint. Over the final hurdle, Benjamin had shrunk the gap almost entirely.
“After that,” Warholm said, “I just ran with my life.”
Warholm inched ahead of Benjamin until it became clear he would win gold. Benjamin believed he could have caught Warholm in a longer race. “You just freaking run out of space,” he said. Warholm did not feel confident until he crossed the line and glanced at the clock.
Benjamin saw 45.94 and thought: “What the hell?”
He saw 46.17 and thought: “This can’t be right.”
Warholm congratulated Benjamin. Benjamin could not respond, too dazed by the times. He looked forward to embracing him in the Athletes Village.
“I feel sorry for him taking the silver at 46.17,” Warholm said. “That would deserve a gold medal as well.”
Benjamin planned to watch the race, to study what he perceived as crucial mistakes, especially those chopped steps. It seems like an unfair task, to extract fault from a faster race than anybody had run before.
“There’s a lot of things I could have done differently, but at the same time, how could you know?” Benjamin said. “I never ran that fast before.”
In the moments after the race, Benjamin began to look ahead. He will race again here in the 4x400 meters relay, alongside his best friend Michael Norman. He noted that the 2022 world championships, his next shot at Warholm in a major event, will be held “in my backyard,” in Eugene, Ore. Benjamin still grappled with an unprecedented mixture of accomplishment and disappointment, and with the margin that invited the latter.
“Forty-five nine, man,” Benjamin said. “Forty-six one. And lost.”
Benjamin had done more than anyone could have imagined and still won silver. He was greater than great on the only day, against the only man, when it was not good enough.