Michael Norman (right) and Rai Benjamin (left) in the 200m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris (© Kirby Lee)
As respective winner and runner-up in the men’s 200m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris, Michael Norman and Rai Benjamin were halfway through their first TV interview in the mixed zone when the news of their times – which had not been immediately obvious – clearly reached them.
Norman, NCAA 400m champion three weeks earlier in 43.61 to move to sixth on the world all-time list, had won in 19.84. Benjamin, who had outdone even his training partner’s flourish at the NCAA finals by equalling Ed Moses’ second fastest ever 400m hurdles clocking of 47.02, was second in 19.99. Two legal sub-20 times – mission accomplished in what was an IAAF Diamond League debut for both.
In their joy, the two 20-year-olds, proudly sporting their claret and yellow University of Southern California vests, hugged each other, their faces wide with smiles. It will certainly be the first of many such nights in their new domain of what one reporter soon told them was ‘the big league’.
Benjamin in particular had already had the opportunity to register what that phrase meant in watching Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba earn his fifth consecutive IAAF Diamond League win over 400m hurdles by eclipsing his own time in becoming only the second man to run under 47 seconds, clocking 46.98 – just 0.20 off the world record Kevin Young set in winning the 1992 Olympic title in Barcelona.
“It was impressive running,” Benjamin admitted. “But I was not surprised at all, because if you run low 47s consistently all year it’s only a matter of time before you dip below 47. So no, I was expecting it.
“Maybe me showing up here kind of helped to motivate that a little bit, but it’s been a great competition, and Paris has been overall great this year.”
Asked if he foresaw himself having future battles with the Qatari hurdler, Benjamin responded: “Of course, of course, during the championships part of the season. But at the moment I’m getting the best out of the circuit, and it’s towards the end of the season for me. There’s no need for me to do 400m hurdles any more. It’s been a long collegiate season and it’s time to rest up a bit, so I won’t be racing Samba until next year.”
He insisted he was not disappointed to have missed the Paris 400m hurdles race, which also saw defending IAAF Diamond League champion Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Isles take second place in a national record of 47.54 ahead of Norway’s world champion Karsten Warholm, who clocked 48.06.
“No, not at all. I’m pretty excited about how I’ve done in the 200m, getting under 20 seconds for the first time in my life, so no regrets, not at all.”
Again, he insisted the times he and Norman had produced were not a surprise.
“Knowing the times we had been running in practice, it was just a case of getting in a race.
“Today’s race was very important for me,” added Benjamin. “It shows that I can bring that speed to the 400m hurdles and I can run a pretty fast time, but I’m not worried about running the 400m hurdles any more this season.
“I’m pretty much done with it for now until next season, but 19.99 shows I have speed and that combination should make for some pretty fast times.”
Born in New York to parents from Antigua and Barbuda, he has dual nationality but is currently stuck in transition as he seeks to represent the United States, with the IAAF having put a temporary freeze on allegiance transfers.
“I’m still waiting for the IAAF to give me a heads-up about it,” he said. “But I’m hoping to compete for the Americas in the IAAF Continental Cup at the end of the season.”
Both athletes are coached by 1992 Olympic 400m champion Quincy Watts, with Benjamin getting additional hurdles coaching from Joanna Hayes, who won the 2004 Olympic 100m hurdles title for the United States.
Norman was equally buoyant after his racing.
“It’s really something special to come to this meeting,” he said.
“The competition, the atmosphere, the track, the public – Paris is really an extraordinary place. It pushes you to give the best of yourself. It has been super exciting to share such an experience this evening with Rai, who is my training partner. Now the priority is not to get injured!”
A couple of months before his extraordinary 400m flourish in Eugene, Norman distinguished himself at the NCAA West Preliminary meeting with a 4x400m relay split of 43.06, which has been bettered only by former world record-holder Michael Johnson.
His ambitions in the French capital had been suitably lofty.
“Definitely I was coming out here with the intentions of running a wind legal 19, so I can tick that box,” he said.
Reflecting on his first notable achievement in the sport two years ago, when he won 200m and 4x100m gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgozcz, Norman added: “Looking back two years ago, we have both progressed so much. These things I’m doing now I never thought I’d be achieving this early, so I’m really happy with how I am progressing.”
He confirmed that he and Benjamin had made a conscious decision to wear their college colours. “It’s always great to represent the school that we come from, having the shield on our chest. We wanted to respect our coaches and our college.”
Asked about his relationship with Benjamin, he responded: “We’re pretty good friends. We’re going to be room-mates next year so I would say our relationship’s pretty close.”
He accepted that Benjamin might have been a little disappointed to lose – “well, I guess everyone is disappointed to lose” – but added: “Rai’s got out there in his first race for three weeks and he’s got a 19.99 PR in the 200, so he’s come a long way. Over 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles – he’s a great athlete.
“I may have been faster on the flat as far as previous times went, but you never know. It was a race that was going to bring the best out of both of us.”
On the question of what his own best might be at the end of this breakthrough season, Norman responded: “I’m happy to have run 43.61 in the 400m. But I definitely want to run sub 19.8 in the 200m, so that’s going to be the goal in the next few days.”
Which means the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne? “I hope so.”
There are riches in prospect from these two – next week, next month, next year…
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF