Olympics 2021: Why the 400-meter hurdles is a 1-2 battle between Team USA stars

The last three times Dalilah Muhammad, left, and Sydney McLaughlin raced in a championship final, one of them set a world record. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Youth versus experience. Speed versus technique. World-record holder versus defending world and Olympic champion. The women's 400-meter hurdles has all the drama, excitement and promise to make it a must-watch event at the Tokyo Olympics track and field competition.

With qualifying rounds beginning Friday at 8 p.m. ET, the slight favorite is Sydney McLaughlin, a 21-year-old prodigy from Dunellen, New Jersey, and the first woman in history to run the event in less than 52 seconds. McLaughlin set the world record of 51.90 on June 27 at the U.S. Olympic trials, overtaking world champion Dalilah Muhammad going into the final hurdle. After dealing with health issues this season, Muhammad finished second in 52.42.

But it's too soon to call that race a passing of the torch, which is what makes the anticipation for Tokyo so compelling. Muhammad, 31, won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and in 2019 held off McLaughlin to capture the world title in Doha while lowering her own world record to 52.16.

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"This battle has been epic the last two years," Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400-meter champion, said in an interview. "I haven't seen anything like it. They're the best we've ever seen. Every single time they step on the track, you almost expect the world record is in danger."

The only person who seems capable of surprising the two Americans is 21-year-old Femke Bol of the Netherlands, who ran 52.37 this year. The third-fastest time in the world this year, 52.39, belongs to Shamier Little of the USA, but she did not qualify for the Olympics after stumbling on the eighth hurdle at trials and finishing fourth. The third American in Tokyo is Anna Cockrell, who ran a personal best of 53.70 at trials.

Muhammad has historically used impeccable technique and a ferocious start to open insurmountable leads; McLaughlin was finally able to use her tremendous closing speed to beat Muhammad in July. All of which lines up for an incredible final in Tokyo, set for Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. ET.

"I acknowledge the world record, but the job is not done," McLaughlin said at a virtual news conference last week.

McLaughlin made the 2016 Olympic team at age 16 but did not advance past the semifinals. She spent a year competing for the University of Kentucky before going pro, and in 2020 switched coaches to the legendary Bobby Kersee. Her technique has steadily improved, including her ability to hurdle off either leg, and she also has become vocal on Instagram about her Christian faith, which she credits with bringing her peace amid the pressures of her athletic quest.

"As a person, [I've changed] just understanding more of the woman I want to become," McLaughlin said, reflecting on her time since the Rio Olympics. "Making the team at 16, there was so much that I was uncertain about, not just in the sports world but being a teenage girl. The past five years have just been crucial in figuring out who I want to be and what I want to represent."

Muhammad, born in Queens, New York, contracted COVID-19 twice during the pandemic, injured her hamstring earlier this season and had run only three races before trials. She was not in top form when she lost to McLaughlin at trials -- yet she still ran her third-fastest time ever. She is determined to repeat atop the podium.

"I want to show people that anything is possible if you put your mind to it," she told Vogue. "We all face so many challenges, but if we just stick to our goals and what we want to accomplish, anything is possible. I've had COVID-19 twice this year and came back from that. I think there were so many points where I was with my coach going, 'I don't know if this is even possible.' But we just kept pushing me. I want people to know that story because we've come such a long way and just to be at the Games is special to me.

"Now that I'm here, I want to win and just to see what the human body is capable of when you put your mind to something."

What her body did in trials -- between her recovery from COVID and from her injury, and with only three races this season -- was an amazing feat in itself.

"For her to run 52.4 was mind-blowing," Richards-Ross said. "It was almost equally impressive as the world record, pound for pound, given what she's been through this season. I think this will be a very fair race. Sydney is an incredible talent whose speed makes her extremely dangerous, and since she started working with Kersee, it's been lights out. But it's not a foregone conclusion that Sydney will be the Olympic champion."

Richards-Ross calls their rivalry "exhilarating, and I'm sure also a bit intimidating. The thought of every single time I race this person, I have to run the fastest race I've ever run -- that can be daunting. But these two women meet the challenge every time and exceed expectations."

The last three times McLaughlin and Muhammad raced in a championship final, one of them set a world record. Here's hoping that Tokyo is the fourth.