Glass speaks to American althete Rai Benjamin

 “I HATE to say it, but … I saw it coming. It was inevitable. Of course it bugged me out, but in a sense I was already in a headspace where I was prepared for the worst. When the NBA was postponed I think I realised how serious this really was.”

Rai Benjamin is the current world silver medalist in the 400m hurdles, and one of only four men in history to have run a sub 47-second race. He’s 22 years old, and was headed to Tokyo 2020 as a double gold medal favourite. His timeline of unraveling aspirations revolves around the National Basketball Association’s March 11th announcement that the 19/20 season was to be ended prematurely, until further notice – months later, basketball’s return, or any sport for that matter, feels no closer. It was the first example of a major sporting body exercising its autonomy to cancel events, in the face of glacial government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[The NBA] took the step to cancel an entire season, and this is a major organisation that generates so much cash every year, so for them to take those measures… I thought it was pretty symbolic. I knew once that happened it was just going to be a chain reaction of different sports pulling out.”


Olympians_Rai Benjamin, running

Rai Benjamin

It was on March 9th that NBA superstar Rudy Gobert produced one of the pandemic’s most memorable moments, when he attended a pre game press conference and preceded to express his indifference to, what he perceived to be, Covid-19 hysteria. Utilizing his near 8-foot wingspan, Gobert made sure to fondle every microphone within arms reach, before returning to the changing room with a even wider grin.

Two days later he tested positive for coronavirus, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver responded by putting the league on ice. By the end of the week many of the players to have recently shared the court with Gobert began testing positive, too. It was a moment equivalent to when Siegfried & Roy reached into their lion’s mouth to show the audience what a tame kitty it was, circa Las Vegas, October 1st 2003 (two nights before said kitty mauled Roy to within an inch of his life).

American Athlete Rai benjamin

Rai Benjamin

“So yeah, I was prepared for it, but of course I’m bummed. Of course it was still heartbreaking, I did all of this work and I was almost there.” It’s difficult to draw Benjamin into explaining how the pandemic has affected him personally as a professional athlete. I can tell he doesn’t want to complain or feel sorry for himself, that he appreciates the bigger picture far outweighs the disruption of sporting events. Though our London to LA call is hostage to pixels and choppy audio, I can make out his embarrassment with crystal clarity. It’s not at all what I’d expected.

Having spent the week pouring over clips of Benjamin obliterating the competition at college meets and in-door events, I had, without even realizing it, constructed an image of him that was more machine than human. From deep in the dusty recesses of my quarantine brain, a memory of a scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day had been involuntarily tapped and tied, unfairly, to Benjamin.

The scene shows the terminator chase the protagonists on foot as they attempt to escape in a car, matching its pace relentlessly, blasting through obstacles, absorbing bullets and looking generally unstoppable. Of course there are no bullets flying – just a single pop of a starter pistol – when Benjamin chases down his rivals, and obstacles aren’t powered through, but hurdled. Yet there’s something about the way he attacks the track – no stutter steps as he clears each hurdle, no lapse in speed along the home straight – that’s absolutely terminator like. You feel that if the finish line sprouted legs and set off in front of Benjamin he’d chase it to the ends of earth.

So, with all this in mind, the distinct lack of  “I’ll be back” in his response to my coronavirus questions was unexpected, but ultimately fair. Instead Benjamin begins to remind me of Michael Johnson, the undisputed track king of the 1990s who’s since become a beloved BBC pundit. Their accents a totally different (Johnson is from Dallas while Benjamin is a New Yorker), but the thoughtful, almost lethargic way Benjamin discusses each topic is undeniably Johnson-esque – like a hare with the air of a tortoise.

American Athlete Rai Benjamin portrait

Rain Benjamin

Like most American star athletes, Benjamin’s college education doubled as a conveyer belt to professional sport. Yet, unlike many American star athletes, he stayed to complete his degree despite turning pro as a Junior. “I majored in Political Science. And as far people saying, “Ah man you didn’t have to finish [your degree],” for me, I did. The goal was always to finish school. Granted I didn’t necessarily have to – I was already getting paid to do exactly what I love – but for me it’s about being more than just a track athlete.

“It was about being educated and having a college diploma. My mum really pushed for me to graduate. It wasn’t easy… at some points in time I was even saying to myself, ‘Man … I really don’t have to be here now’, but just knowing that I wanted to be a college graduate and I wanted a degree, that kept me going.”

It’s commendable. The same year Benjamin was finishing his political science degree at the University of Southern California, he represented USA at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. He won gold running the final leg in the 4X400 meter relay team, and silver in the 400 meter hurdles, but looks back on the event with the regret of a man who didn’t even make the finals.

“There wasn’t one day out there when I felt I was having a good time. I had a terrible injury just before Doha … Just when you think you’re figuring things out you get knocked back, you know? So that Championship was a whole trial and tribulation situation. It was rough and emotional. It’s funny because it was my first one and it was not fun.” Suddenly I feel like I’m watching Schwarzenegger getting dumped via text in between scenes – even Terminator hurts sometimes.

After all, elite level athletics is a funny beast. There’s often an assumption that there are the Olympics every four years and nothing else; that athletes spend the other three years and 11 months staring at a clock. This is wrong, obviously. There’s also the biennial World Championships, and the annual Diamond League, making for a calendar with at least one meaningful event each year (the more staggered the event, the more valued its medal).

american athlete, running, rai benjamin

Rai Benjamin

So while it’s wrong to assume the likes of Rai Benjamin only roll out of bed every four years, an elite athlete’s competition calendar is hardly stacked with international events. Chances to impress are valuable, preparation is painfully meticulous, and last minute injuries (and worldwide pandemics) are absolutely rotten luck.

“It’s hard to go through something like this by yourself. Living with Micheal helps because we’re both in the same boat. There’s that accountability factor. I feel like he holds me accountable if there’s ever a time when I’m like, “Why? Why are we doing this all of this, why are we continuing to practice when there is no end goal in sight?” His attitude has always brought me out of that funk.” “Michael” is Michael Norman, fellow USC alumni and world indoor record holder for the 400 meters. They compete together as part of the American relay team, and against one and other in Benjamin’s secondary event, the 400 meters (sans hurdles).

“He’s next door right now… You know, whenever we compete I don’t really think of him as competition.” Benjamin briefly feigns disregard for the man who may or may not be competition, and may or may not be listening on the other side of the wall. A second or so later he breaks, smiles, and explains how he really feels. “Mike is my training partner, and he’s my brother. [When we compete,] what goes through my head is, let me see how far I can push myself, while pushing him, to see how fast we can actually run – when he PRs, I PR (Personal Record). There is that competition factor there too, but at the end of the day: as long as he wins or I win there are never any hard feelings.”

When competition will resume, no one is really sure. All we do know is that a prolonged of period of in-between-times awaits. As we say our goodbyes something catches Rai Benjamin’s eye and he looks off camera. “It’s wild … Since I’ve been out in LA the air quality has been so crappy, and now its clear skies everyday… you can see the hills and the mountains.”

By Charlie Navin-Holder