The greatest race ever part II: Sydney McLaughlin wins 400m hurdles gold in world record time

Another day. Another extraordinary 400m hurdles final. Another dizzying world record. And another urgent question: was this the greatest ever track and field race … since, erm, Tuesday?

Less than 24 hours after a men’s 400m hurdles slugfest for the ages, with Karsten Warholm going toe to toe with Rai Benjamin, it was the women’s turn – and they duly delivered and then some.

Such was the staggering pace that after 300m, three athletes – Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin of the United States, and Femke Bol of the Netherlands – were yards clear and chasing down gold and a world record.

Bol was the first to fall off the scorching pace with 60m to go. At that point Muhammad looked a clear favourite but when she hesitated before the final hurdle, McLaughlin pounced.

It was desperately close, but in the final strides McLaughlin overtook her great rival to win in 51.46sec – a time that was not only faster than the best 400m flat time until 1970 but crushed her own hurdles world record by 0.44s.

“You need somebody who’s going to push you to be your best, and I think that’s what we do so well,” she explained. “It’s iron sharpening iron. Every time we step on the track it’s always something fast.

“I saw Dalilah ahead of me with one to go. I just thought: ‘Run your race.’ The race doesn’t really start till hurdle seven. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had. I’m absolutely delighted.”

Muhammad, who finished just 0.12 back to take silver, was left ruing her stutter at the last hurdle. “I was coming at it fast and I could have gone right or left leg and I chose to go on my right leg. I had to shorten my strides but that is just how it goes.”

With Bol taking the bronze in 52.03 it meant that for the second day in a row, the top two finishers in the Olympic 400m hurdles final had destroyed the world record – while the athlete in third would have been under the world record as of six weeks ago.

Coming so soon after Warholm’s record, the conversation soon turned to what could be causing the fast times – be it super spikes, perfect conditions, the lightning quick Tokyo track. Regarding the track, its designers, Mondo, claim it contains small pockets of air which not only provide an element of shock absorption but create a trampoline effect which gives a 1-2% performance advantage to athletes.

“It definitely feels fast,” said Muhammad. “I can feel that energy return. A lot of people talk about the shoes, but I think it’s one of those tracks that gives you that energy right back and pushes you and propels you forward. Especially when you go into hurdle eight and feel that death. Today I didn’t feel like I was going into death.”

McLaughlin agreed. “It’s one of those tracks that gives you that energy right back and pushes you forward,” she said. “Every time you step on the track there seems to be some sort of record broken and it’s really cool to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Such developments have raised concerns about the integrity of the competition, but the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, said he was relaxed about what was happening – within reason. “Of course there is a balance,” he said. “We do need to make sure we’re not allowing designs or materials that really transform the sport into something we don’t recognise. But I also don’t want to strangle the innovation that the shoe companies or track manufacturers are bringing to the table.

“At this moment I think we’re in about the right place. We’re not going to be leaving here with thousands of records having been smashed.”

After her victory McLaughlin also praised her coach Bobby Kersee, who guided the career of Florence Griffith Joyner, having switched to train with him last year. Under Kersee’s direction, McLaughlin focused on her form and running shorter hurdles courses to improve her technique. Training alongside Allyson Felix also helped.

“It’s just about trusting your training, trusting your coach, and that will get you all the way round the track,” she said. “We’ve practised the last 40m so many times, so it was nothing unfamiliar for me. I just knew I had to go and give it everything I had and dip at the line.”

Muhammad, the reigning world champion, had given it her all too – and that seemed to soften the blow of breaking the previous world record yet coming away with silver. “The perfectionist in me looks back and thinks: ‘Ugh, could have done that, could have done this,’ but I did all that I could,” she said. “There are little things that I’m probably going to beat myself up about but now I’m truly happy too.”