A little more than two years ago, Abderrahman Samba should have won his first IAAF World Championships medal.
The Team Qatar athlete had forced people to sit up and take notice of his talent when he beat American Kerron Clement by more than a second in the 400m hurdles at the Diamond League opener at home that year.
He made it to the World Championships final in London against the likes of Norwegian star Karsten Warholm and Clement. In the medal round, just as it looked that the then 22-year-old had built a rhythm and pace, he tripped on one of the hurdles.
Past the finish line, Warholm, who had only just begun tasting success at the senior level in the discipline that year, was clutching his face in elation and disbelief at becoming the world champion.
As Warholm basked in his glory, a cap shielded Samba’s eyes under the lights at the London Olympic Stadium, as he sat on the track looking at nothing, perhaps thinking about what could have been.
“I was very disappointed after the race, especially because my coach, the managing staff and the president of the federation were all present. But these people are the cornerstones that enabled me to come back stronger than before and with more motivation to be the best,” Samba was quoted as saying by the IAAF website earlier this month.
And come back he did.
He not only went unbeaten the entire 2018 in the 400m hurdles, beating Warholm in spectacular fashion on a more than a few occasions, he lost only once across 400m flat, and relays.
He gave a breath of fresh air to a discipline that had waited 26 years for only the second athlete to go under 47 seconds, like the world record holder Kevin Young (46.78) of the US had done in Barcelona in 1992.
It happened in Paris last year when Samba ran 46.98. “I’ve tried to make the 400m hurdles something exceptional,” he had said.
It didn’t look like the script could be any different this year when he won the Asian gold at home, and declared that he could shave off a second off his winning time of 47.51 seconds. A month later, he had gone down to 47.27 seconds in Shanghai.
And then there was silence. An injury. In a World Championship year.
Suddenly it was turning into Warholm’s year. The Norwegian went unbeaten, and as a timely warning shot, becomes the second fastest man in history when he runs 46.92 in Zurich, a month before the Worlds.
In pursuit in Zurich was American champion Rai Benjamin, who tied Samba’s time from Paris, and suddenly in a span of 14 months, three athletes had entered the sub-47-second club.
At the Worlds, Samba has left his performance in the heats to do all the talking, barring a quote here and there.
After winning his qualifying heat on the first day of the Worlds at Khalifa International Stadium on Friday, he had welcomed his fast colleagues, saying, “When you see the athletes running so close to each other, they make each other go fast, and make the race exciting.” He, however, did sign off by saying that he was looking for “gold and something else”.
Warholm, on the other hand, after making it to the final, said, “On the track, I felt better than yesterday (first round). I think I managed a pretty good run and maybe spared some energy for the final. I did not have the chance to watch the others but it is OK. I am just focused on myself.”
The 23-year-old acknowledges the support Samba has at home, and also the fact that Benjamin has been hot in his pursuit all year.
Benjamin, ahead of the Worlds, declared, “If he (Warholm) is Gordon Gekko (immoral financier from Wall Street films) then I am the IRS,” referring to the US Internal Revenue Service. Now, there maybe no immorality here, but there is definitely ‘greed’, if you stick to Gekko references, even though ‘hunger for glory’ maybe a more apt description.
Nevertheless, this one promises to be one cracker of a contest, stuff of the thrillers.