These Astounding Performances Made Track’s Top Event a Hit

This is the third conversation between WIRED editor Nicholas Thompson and Knox Robinson, an elite runner and former editor of The Fader, about the IAAF World Championships of track and field. In their previous post, they discussed the medals and controversies rocking the running world.

NT: Damn, damn, damn. That was a riveting track meet. It had everything I like: close finishes, dramatic reversals, twists in the storylines, and American dominance. On the last two days, was there a single event that didn’t feature either a world record or a photo finish? What was your favorite event?

KR: Almost too many events to choose one, actually. I’m a bit surprised I was fixated on Dalilah Muhammad’s world record in the 400 meter hurdles. For all the talk of a rivalry with Syd “The Kid” McLaughlin, the race seemed to be Muhammad’s all along—no matter how close the finish and the string of personal bests and national records she left with others as consolation prizes.

Other than that, performance-wise, I replayed Salwa Eid Naser’s stunning win in the 400m more than once: a thing of beauty, obviously. Much was made of the fact that her 48.14 was the third fastest time in history—behind clockings from Marita Koch (East Germany) and Jarmila Kratochvilova (Czechoslovakia) notched in 1985 and 1983, respectively. A quick look shows that Koch alone has 22 of the top 100 times ever run for the distance, with Kratochvílová holding another 12 slots herself. (With her latest win Naser makes three appearances in the top 100.)

The records from that era are widely understood to be holdovers from state-sponsored Eastern European programs known internally—euphemistically—as “Special Care” for their use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. But come to think of it … to these ears the phrase “Special Care” has a certain ring to it in this wellness boom we’re currently enjoying. I might start using that instead of “marginal gains” actually.

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NT: Let’s stick with Dalilah Muhammad for a second. A reader, Sarah Barker, wrote to us, arguing that Muhammad has been nearly erased from coverage of the event, despite her world record and two gold medals. Why? In no small part because of the world’s fascination with her vanquished rival, Syd the Kid. The best evidence is this bonkers photo the IAAF used on their Twitter feed, showing the bodies of three of the four runners on the US 4X400 team, with a flag blocking out most of Muhammad. Or as our correspondent wrote, “There is some kind of weird media-deflecting, blackballing, McCarthy-istic bubble of ignore-ance around this athlete. I’ve been following this woman who is quiet, thoughtful, articulate, humble, easy on the eyes, and supremely talented for four years. There is something strange going on.” What say you?

KR: Wow! WIRED readers stay woke, huh? Well, to be succinct—the systematic erasure of black excellence isn’t particularly “weird” or “strange.” This is something people of color—especially black women—experience all the time, whether they’re world champions or not. Combine that with some latent Islamophobia and I’d wholeheartedly agree that the casual media blindness to a black American Muslim woman who’s a world champion and world record holder—breaking her own records at that—is something we need more writers to highlight—and correct with their own reportage.

Still, from a few interactions I’ve had with her, Dalilah Muhammad is as your correspondent describes: empirically beautiful, yes, but also reserved and focused without nonchalance or affectation. Plus she’s from Queens! That’s what I was getting at—I never saw any rivalry emerge, in Doha or all season, because I never saw Muhammad engage in or acknowledge one. Beyond unshakeable confidence it just seemed she was on a different mission. So I’d like to think she’s not fanboy fodder because she doesn’t cater to it—not to take anything away from anyone else’s approach on social media.

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