When Matthew Hudson-Smith crossed the line to shatter a 36-year-old European record for the 400m on Tuesday, the former doyen of the lap, Michael Johnson, called the performance flawless.
The Briton had come out quickly from the blocks, clocking 10.97sec for the first 100m and relaxed sufficiently down the back stretch to give him plenty left in the tank to power to the line.
“This is how you want to run the race,” said Johnson in the aftermath. “Someone’s been teaching him and he’s been listening. It’s textbook.”
Hudson-Smith was so efficient it looked almost effortless as he set a European record of 44.26sec, even though he eased up well before the finish.
Afterwards, he reacted as though the record was little more than an inconvenience. He simply branded it “job done”, before adding: “I will be happy when I get that medal.”
Despite his time, Hudson-Smith was only the second-fastest qualifier from the World Athletics Championships semis behind Antonio Watson and, while the Briton’s cause has been helped by Steven Gardiner’s injury withdrawal, Wayde van Niekerk is expected to run considerably faster in the final. He is, after all, the fastest man in the world for the distance in 2023.
Hudson-Smith had not really been talked about as one of Great Britain’s leading medal contenders. After running at London Stadium last month, he had to be taken off the track in a wheelchair because of a niggle which has curtailed him since April. He will not say what the exact problem is, but Stephen Maguire, head of high performance coaching at UK Athletics, has suggested it is a series of niggles rather than one solitary problem.
“It’s quite a mental challenge to push through the pain,” said Hudson-Smith. “It’s been since April and it has been less and less and less. Now, it is just managing it and changing training.”
While running on the straights has not been problematic, it has been the bends where he has been grimacing. On the evidence of his semi, the issue has not flared up again, although he has continued to give little away about the ailment.
Immaterial of what happens in the race, Hudson-Smith’s story has already been an extraordinary one.
When he won the bronze medal at last year’s World Championships in Eugene, he admitted he had battled with mental health issues in 2021 to the extent that he had attempted to commit suicide.
Tonight’s World Athletics Championships highlights
8.22pm BST: Women’s 100m hurdles final
Tobi Amusan had looked set to be banned after three whereabouts failures, but a hearing cleared her — and here she is. Her rivals for gold include Kendra Harrison and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn.
8.35pm: Men’s 400m final
Matthew Hudson-Smith was hampered by injury up to last month, but his semi-final was spot on as he broke the European record. There are no shortage of rivals, from Wayde van Niekerk to Kirani James.
8.50pm: Women’s 400m hurdles final
Femke Bol’s legs gave way when vying for 4x400metre mixed relay gold, but has shown few ill effects since and is the overwhelming favourite to win gold.
In the aftermath, he was awash with messages from countless other people who were going through similar issues or had done in the past.
He had planned to walk away from the sport altogether and become an electrician, but was talked out of it by his mother and girlfriend. People were lining up to help, including the 1968 Olympic champion Tommie Smith, who told him simply never to look left or right over a lap of the track but instead to look dead ahead.
Hudson-Smith has been one of the smoothest runners ever since, only allowing himself a cursory flick of the eyes either side towards the finish line as he eased up in his semi-final knowing full well that he was clear of the chasing pack.
In the final, he faces some of the most revered 400m runners in the history of the sport, from Van Niekerk to Kirani James. Here in Budapest, he has looked better than both.
If he can repeat what he did in the semi-finals, a medal will surely be his. The colour? He has no idea.