Femke Bol and Karsten Warholm produced expected victories in the 400m finals at the Istanbul 2023 European Athletics Indoor Championships tonight (4) – but gold came unexpectedly hard for the Norwegian athlete.
While the Dutch world record-holder sped away from all opposition in the women’s final to retain her title in 49.85 - her third sub-50 time of the season - Warholm came under such heavy pressure from Belgium’s fast-finishing Julien Watrin that his desperate lunge for the line caused him to hit the deck heavily.
By the time he had picked himself up and dusted himself down, though, the Norwegian was able to see the reassuring evidence on the digital display, confirming his victory in 45.35.
Watrin – another 400m hurdler who finished sixth in last year’s world final - clocked a national record of 45.44 for silver.
By happy coincidence the men’s final was immediately preceded by a rapturously acclaimed and celebrated high jump clearance of 2.19m - a championship best - by Norway’s 20-year-old heptathlete Sander Skotheim, taking him into the overall lead after four events.
Perhaps that caused a little extra urgency in Warholm’s early pace, but at it was his second best time of the season, following his 45.31 opener at his home meeting in Ulsteinvik, was enough to regain the title he earned in Glasgow four years ago when he equalled the European indoor record of 45.05 set by East Germany’s Thomas Schonlebe in 1988.
Warholm had gone hard from gun to tape in his semifinal, clocking the fastest ever time recorded in the heats of the men’s 400m at this event - 45.75 – explaining cheerfully: “I had to scare my opponents.”
He ran the same race today, blasting out from the gun and giving himself ample space to move down from the top lane to pole position and carrying a couple of metres lead at the bell, clocking an eye-watering 20.84 at 200m.
But as the Norwegian rounded the top bend and headed for home it became apparent that he had not sufficiently scared the field as the pack came after him, headed by Watrin.
This Viking has not won Olympic, world and European 400m hurdles champion without knowing how to fight, however, and he drew on his competitive reserves to raid another gold.
Afterwards he admitted that those final metres had felt as painful as they appeared. “I was stupid fast today I think,” he said. “I do not know if you saw it but I felt lactic acid in the last 100 so I had to fight all the way through. It just hit me like a wall. With this, you never know what is going to come.
“I was just fighting my ass off to save myself and I am just very happy it was gold today. It is always nice to have titles and this is what we are trained for. But at the same time, today I wanted to show a better time.”
Watrin commented: “It's crazy, I really enjoyed the race. I flew in the last 100m, came a lot more relaxed than in the race last year. We worked a lot on the finish so it really paid off.
“I knew that Karsten is strong and I believe he is stronger than me but I almost won. In the last bend I knew I could push more. The race was a good one, tactical. The first lap was a little bit too fast, that's why I slowed down a little bit and saved energy for the strong finish. I am very happy with this medal and also with the fact that the 400m podium is taken by 400m hurdlers.
Another sometime 400m hurdler, Sweden’s Carl Bengtstrom – who reached last year’s world semifinals – completed a versatile podium as he took bronze in 45.77 ahead of Spain’s defending champion Oscar Husillos – strictly a 200/400m flat man - who was fourth in 46.24.
Bol leads her training partners to a clean sweep
Bol also did a really good job – a really, really good job – but it was always going to be a stretch for her to break her 400m personal best given that it was a world record of 49.26 that eclipsed the oldest track mark in the book - 49.59 - set by Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvilova in 1982.
After recording that time last month in what she described as “almost a perfect race” the bar was set awesomely high for the 23-year-old but she followed the same route to victory as Warholm, albeit from lane five rather than lane six, by leading after the break and passing 200m in 23.78.
There was no similar struggle to maintain her lead, however, as she finished comfortably ahead of her compatriot and training partner Lieke Klaver, who took silver in 50.57, and Polish training partner Anna Kielbasinska, who took bronze in 51.25, completing a hat-trick for athletes coached in Papendal by Laurent Meuwly.
“It is very cool, especially that my teammates are also on the podium,” said Bol. “It makes it even more special that I could defend my title and become European champion for the second time in a row.
“In most races I ran in lane six, but today this was different and I had Lieke in front of me. The time is also very quick, which makes me feel really happy.
“I have multiple European titles, but the world title is still missing. The world record is step one. Coming to Istanbul with a world record, I could feel that everybody wanted me to go even faster and expected that I could ‘easily’ run a world record again. Unfortunately, it is harder than it might look like!”
She added: “I have high hopes for the 4x400m tomorrow, since we have the number one and two of Europe. I hope it is going to be a big party.”
The odds are that it will be – and that there will be much more partying two years from now when these championships will be staged on Bol’s home soil in Apeldoorn.
Mike Rowbottom for European Athletics