World 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm (© Dan Vernon)
Yes, Karsten Warholm had indeed watched the race in which he retained his world 400m hurdles title in Doha. Four or five times, in fact, as he told us right at the start of a press point on the day of the World Athletics Awards last month in Monaco.
And what was his analysis of the race?
“It’s better to win than to come second.”
Warholm was off and running…
By the time he had finished speaking he had taken us on a tour of his world and his sport, and had spoken with – there’s no other word for it – wisdom.
“I had a really good season,” he said. “I wanted to break my record, which was very nice, and which was not an easy thing to do. I managed to get to an even higher level than I had the season before.
“I also managed to get some time to train between the meets and to prepare even better. And I think that was one of the reasons I was able to run so well this season.”
2019 high point: sensational 46.92 in Zurich
Retaining his world 400m hurdles title in Doha, against a field that included his two big rivals in Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba and Rai Benjamin of the United States was the crowning moment of this now-famed Norwegian’s season – but not, according to him, its high point.
Asked to identify the peak of a season in which his Doha victory was preceded by winning the Diamond League title in Zurich in 46.92, the second fastest ever behind Kevin Young’s 1992 world record of 46.78, Warholm was unequivocal.
“I must say that Zurich was my highlight,” he said. “It was a crazy race running with Rai. With a time of 46.98 he deserved to win too. For me it was extraordinary to be in that race and to help put up that show. I think it must have been one of the best 400m hurdles race for men ever. So for me that was my highlight of the year.”
Asked about his hard year in 2018, when he was beaten repeatedly by Samba, who lowered his own personal best to 46.98, Warholm responded:
“Of course it sucks to lose but what's easy to forget and I almost forget myself is, if you look at the 2017 season where I ran 48.22 – I ran 47.64 last year, which is six tenths of a second improvement. That is a lot when you are already at a high level. And this year I have improved by seven tenths of a second.
“Which to me proves that I’m doing the job. The other guys, they had a really huge leap, they ran a second faster than they did before.
One fear: ‘Not improving’
“And for me I think that this natural way of always taking step by step is probably the reason why I am performing so well this year. This is a work in progress, I take it year by year, and so far I have been lucky enough to have improvement every year.
“That is probably the thing that I fear most. I fear not to improve. I can bear losing, I don’t like to lose, but I can do it, and I don't fear losing. I will always be there to have a good race and a good match. But I fear very much not improving.”
Not unnaturally, the convergence of three such talents as Warholm, Samba and Benjamin prompted much heady speculation this year on the subject of how soon a world record would emerge. But Warholm sounded a cautionary note.
“You can't give world records out on order,” he said. “I feel that people are getting a bit – what can I say? - spoiled. We are running fast times and the talking is about ‘how fast, how fast, how fast?’
“Of course I think a lot about it, when I practice, when I am at home. I think about how can I become better, and I'm really close to the world record and two other guys are also really, really close to the world record.
“So I think it will be there in the near future but at the same time it is a really good world record and it is not a given that we will improve it.
“But I think we have a better possible start to do it because there are three guys, which means that obviously everyone is willing to train hard, come to the meet and perform better. We are three guys pushing each other and everybody wants to be better than the others.”
Behind the slap
Karsten! Why do you slap your face before races! The question is delivered by a perspicacious Italian journalist.
Answer: “I look at videos when I’m relaxing, and I think “I'm an idiot. But it gets gold medals so it can't be that bad.
“The reason I slap my face and I hit myself and I scream and everything - when I train at home I'm the only boy at training.
“All my training partners are girls. So I need to push myself. Because my coach has timers, and I need to train at high quality to beat my personal bests. That’s how it started - to get the adrenaline pumping. And then it just became natural to me to bring it over to competition. Because that’s how I get ready. So I understand that some people think that looks kind of weird and that I should probably stop doing it. But I won’t.”
Warholm had arrived from a training break in The Canary Islands. It made a change from winter preparations of previous years.
“The place where I grew up we had no indoor facilities,” he recalled. “So during the winter we trained at the beach. Because at the beach you won’t have snow. It teaches you to be creative and also to be tough.
“Norway is a very small country, We have only five million people, And one and a half million people were watching the Doha final live.
“There is huge interest in athletics in Norway now. A lot of people are running quick. The Ingebrigtsens, of course, and one of my training partner, Amalie Iuel, in the 400 m hurdles.”
With the success, however, comes a price. It is one Warholm is happy to pay – but it still costs.
“Being young everyone thinks it would be really cool to be famous. I would say now I am just famous in my own country. I can come to Monaco or France and not be recognised. And that is very appealing because I feel like, when I am in Norway everybody feels like they are knowing you.
“I don’t care, I love meeting people. But you meet 500 people in one day. And everyone meets you for the first time. And you want them to see the best part of you - that’s how we all are when we meet people. But that is tough – and it’s tiring. So you need to train a lot and you need to rest.
“I spend more hours at home now than I probably did before because I need more time to rest. But when I am ready to meet people I love doing it. I feel like being world champion brings more than it takes away, and I wouldn’t be without it. And I love people being interested in what I do, and in the sport.”
Growing confidence through sport
As a last question, Warholm was asked if he had any advice to children who are lacking in confidence. The jester’s hat was nowhere to be seen.
“Interesting,” Warholm said. “Because when I was a child, believe it or not, I was very, very shy. When I had my first day at school my mother was the last person to leave because I didn’t want her to leave because I was so afraid.
“I didn’t interact well with the other children, I was afraid of the teachers. But for me, I found sport, and that gave me confidence and a way to grow.
“I think to deal with these things you need to find something you are good at something, and that is where your confidence will increase.”
He added: “But it's important we tell our children it's not always about winning because not everyone can be a winner. Out of 30 runners there can be only one winner. But I don't want it to be 29 losers. I want everybody to feel like the winner somehow - because we can always become better.”
Karsten Warholm is 23.
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics