After avoiding each other, star hurdlers McLaughlin-Levrone and Femke Bol prepare for showdown

The two greatest women’s hurdlers of their era have been plotting, planning and training — and, whether by design or by happenstance — mostly avoiding each other for the past two years.

If things go right for them, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone of America and Femke Bol of the Netherlands are headed for what would be only their third career showdown at the Paris Olympics.

It’s hard to see what could prevent them from lining up in the final on Aug. 8, though for months leading into this matchup, each racer threw something of a smokescreen around their plans. McLaughlin-Levrone spent most of the last two years running 400 and 200 sprints, while also mixing in some short hurdles. Bol was a 400 sprinter, too; she won world indoor championships in March.

Then, starting at European championships last month, both racers ended the speculation and shared their intent to stick with what they did best — the 400 hurdles. And, as if to show the game is truly back on, McLaughlin-Levrone lowered her world record, to 50.65 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials last weekend. It was just her fourth 400-hurdles race of 2024.

“I think I just wanted to focus on one” event, McLaughlin-Levrone said last week after breaking the record. “I like to hone in on one thing and do it to the best of my ability. I think that’s why we chose the 4-hurdles and I’m grateful we did that. I think today was a good testament to that, and knowing there’s still work to do.”

That’s a daunting thought for Bol, who has lost both times she’s lined up against McLaughlin-Levrone — the first time at the Tokyo Olympics, then again at 2022 world championships. Even so, Bol comes in as the reigning world champion, in part because McLaughlin-Levrone missed last summer with injuries.

“It’s great she’s there and it’ll always be exciting and it will always bring some nice, like, nerves,” Bol said after winning the European championships in 52.49 in what was only her third 400 hurdles race of 2024. “But at the same time, I’m always really focused on myself. I will just try to be a better athlete. I hope it will bring something nice for me to be battling with her.”

The first time they battled, Bol finished third behind McLaughlin-Levrone and Dalilah Muhammad, the 2016 Olympic champion who did not make this year’s squad. Bol’s time — 52.03 seconds — would have been the world record had she run it six months earlier. Instead, she was .57 seconds slower than McLaughlin-Levrone, who set the world record that day at 51.46.

“I just went out like crazy for the first 300 to be with them,” Bol said that day. “And I died a bit.”

It was much the same story the next year at worlds when McLaughlin won again, set the world record again, and Bol finished second, but was 1.59 seconds behind.

“She was so far in front at the end, I was almost doubting if I really had a good race,” Bol said after that one. “Then, I saw the time and I thought, ‘Wow, that explains a lot.’”

Bol’s personal best is 51.45 seconds. It came last July, only a few weeks before she went to Budapest to win the 2023 world championships.

Hurdling great Edwin Moses thinks McLaughlin-Levrone could go under 50 seconds in Paris — a time that felt unthinkable as recently as 24 months ago. And yet, he still thinks there’s a chance that McLaughlin vs. Bol could be as interesting as McLaughlin vs. the clock. The times Moses looks at are their personal bests in the 400 flat: McLaughlin-Levrone 48.75, Bol 49.17.

“If Femke was a 50 or a 49.8 or 49.5 girl, that’s one thing,” Moses said. “But I could see a scenario where they’re even off the eighth hurdle, and them running to the finish line, and then it’s a matter of who makes an error, who has to alternate their steps, who has to run 15 steps (between hurdles) instead of 14.”

Once the hurdles are over, there’s a good chance these two will face off in the 4×400 relay at the end of the Olympics.

McLaughlin-Levrone ran the opening lap for America’s gold medal at the last Olympics, while Bol ran anchor and the Netherlands finished sixth. But last year at worlds, Bol showed her speed — and heart — by making up 20 meters over the homestretch to give the Netherlands the gold medal in a thrilling close to the meet.

The relay showdown would be a bonus round of sorts. The main event is the 400 hurdles they’ve been preparing for — while staying away from each other.

“They’re different runners,” said Karsten Warholm, the men’s world-record holder who has shared the hurdles spotlight with the women over the past few years. “Sydney has the ground speed that’s probably unmatched. But Femke has really good technique, she has extremely good stamina and she’s a fighter. But Sydney is also a fighter. We could see a real good fight coming up. We just have to make sure to watch it.”


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.


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