The women's 400-meter hurdles final promised to be a battle not only for gold, but also for the world record.
And that's exactly what happened, as Sydney McLaughlin chased down reigning Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad and eventual bronze-medalist Femke Bol of the Netherlands to win in 51.47 seconds—43 hundredths of a second better than her previous world record. Muhammad's time for silver, 51.58, was a personal best that also broke McLaughlin's old record.
Each time they have met at a major competition since 2019, either Muhammad or McLaughlin has broken the world record. First it was Muhammad at the World Championships in Doha in 2019, where her time (52.16) broke her own record from the 2019 U.S. national championships three months prior. Then this past June it was McLaughlin's turn at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where she sat on the track, hands over her mouth in shock after she realized what her time (51.90) meant. As she sat there, Muhammad congratulated her.
McLaughlin and Muhammad, who entered this final with the top two times, competed in the event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, though never at the same time. McLaughlin, at the time the youngest American track athlete in Rio at 17, did not advance out of the semifinals. Muhammad, a decade older, won gold.
Muhammad, now 31, has had COVID-19 twice this year and also fought through a hamstring injury. For McLaughlin, who turns 22 Saturday, this was her first Olympic final. There were question marks. But the intensity of their duel erased all doubts.
Each woman credits the other with pushing her to new heights. "Iron sharpens iron," McLaughlin said of Muhammad following the Olympic Trials. "We have to have each other." As for Muhammad, she said she "absolutely saw it coming," referring to McLaughlin breaking her record. "[McLaughlin] looked so good."
She certainly did, and her run made history in more ways than one.
Edwin Moses—the American sprinter who dominated the 400-meter hurdles for nearly a decade between 1977 and 1987, winning two Olympic golds in the process—told the Associated Press he admired the relationship between McLaughlin and Muhammad. "I wish I'd had that kind of competition when I was running," he said.
The 400-meter hurdles is a demanding race. One lap of the track with 10, two-and-a-half-foot-high hurdles placed evenly throughout the distance. A 40-meter homestretch. It requires both speed and endurance as well as proper hurdling technique, and McLaughlin spent the pandemic looking at footage of Moses.
She admired his even 13 steps between each hurdle, and sought to mimic him, though for her, it would be 15 steps. She sought to fight the tendency to switch legs on the hurdles, which can cost precious fractions of seconds. She ran several sprint hurdle races to train, only racing the 400-meter once between Doha and the Olympic Trials with the idea that she would feel relieved at the distance between hurdles in the longer race and open up more speed once she returned to it.
Muhammad, too, worked on her form during the year away from competition. She focused on her start position: Head low, hips high. She hurdles with her right leg and takes off out of the blocks on her left, so the timing works out on her steps to the first hurdle. She spends less time airborne than most of her competitors as well, aiming to conserve energy that way.
Muhammad led early in the race and into the turn. It was not until the halfway mark that McLaughlin picked off first Bol, then Muhammad, leading through the homestretch to the line. There was a third American in the final, Anna Cockrell, but she was disqualified for stepping on a lane line. Bol is the first Dutch woman to medal in the event.
It is likely this was the end of Muhammad's Olympic career, but track fans can look forward to seeing McLaughlin for at least another cycle or two.
Theirs is an intense rivalry between two women who are not necessarily friends, but competitors who have an obvious mutual respect. They reiterated support and admiration for each other in their post-race interviews with NBC. It is a dynamic that has repeated itself over and over at these Games: Deep rivalries with long histories that come with a huge dose of sportsmanship.
And this rivalry produced a race for the ages. It seems clear that future 400-meter hurdlers will need to come prepared to sharpen more iron to succeed in this event.