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Athletics

Rai Benjamin: The son of West Indies cricketer eyes a grand show at the Tokyo Olympics

Rai Benjamin gears up for his first Olympics after missing out on the world record by a mere 0.05 seconds at the US national trials in Oregon.

Team USA Athlete Rai Benjamin
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Rai Benjamin (Source: CNN)

By

Monish Naidu

Updated: 2021-07-21T22:46:55+05:30

It was the late 80s. Protective equipment were just finding some voices of support in cricket with gruesome West Indian pace bowling becoming severe pain for batsmen to deal with. Quite literally so. Amidst a plethora of such spine-chilling pacers, there was a fellow Antiguan with a relatively quiet stature. As Sunil Gavaskar puts it, "They didn't sledge. A stare was enough". Winston Benjamin was no different.

Coming from rich Antiguan sporting heritage, Winston Benjamin was the perfect Caribbean athlete. Laidback, passionate and never backed out of a tussle. As he continues to impart his cricketing expertise in Antiguan circles, his son is gearing up for the sporting pinnacle.

"I never know why he chose track and not cricket. All I ever knew was I'd back him in whatever he chose.", says Winston when speaking to Times of India about his son, Rai.

With such positive backing, Rai was never going to be kept from making a name for himself in whatever sport he chose. Well, might have been a pity if he didn't choose a sport.

Been 30 years since his father took the mantle of maintaining Antiguan athletic heritage and now the baton has well and truly been passed to Rai.

As the 23-year-old gears up for his first Olympics, he doesn't get buoyed by the fact that the 400m hurdles (in which he is participating) is brewing up like a volcano with Norwegian speedster Karsten Warholm breaking the 29-year-old world record on 2nd July at the Bislett games just days after Rai missed the record by a mere 0.05 seconds at the US national trials in Oregon.

"I'm very chill", he says while interviewed by a journalist from EssentiallySports. Never a doubt on your calm, sir. After all, he was one of the survivors of the devastating 9/11 attacks. After taking off from New York on the morning of the attack, Rai's plane was suspended in the middle of the flight. The passengers were stranded in Puerto Rico with no contact with their family till the situation subsided.

Even though he was incredibly talented, Rai had his share of struggles in the sport. Starting in Antigua, it was not easy for Rai to get adequate facilities to nurture his extraordinary abilities. Hence, Rai wanted to represent the USA and continued to push for the same.

He completed his schooling from Mount Vernon in New York and was already a part of morning gossips in the athletic circles.

After an indifferent performance in the 2013 World Youth Championships representing Antigua, Rai faced a reality check at the world stage. The then 15-year-old managed to work better towards his goals and eventually won the New Balance Championships (National High School Championship in USA) in 400 metres and 400-metre hurdles in 2015.

It was clear that Benjamin had what it required to represent USA and it was only a matter of time till he was officially a part of US athletic contingent. A contingent so rich in athletic heritage that the number of Olympic gold medals that they have won in 400-metres hurdles is almost triple the number of total medals won by any other nation.

When IAAF, the ruling body of world athletics, suspended all transfers of allegiance, it meant that Benjamin could not represent USA in the near future. The dream seemed shattered. But the spirit was not.

He continued to do what he was best at. He entered the elite club of runners who ran 200 metres in less than 20 seconds after clocking a remarkable 19.99 at Meeting Areva in Paris in the summer of 2018.

Rai Benjamin with father Winston Benjamin

In the same summer, IAAF reinstated transfers and the opportunity was wide open for Rai to press his case. The door was already broken down with his CV brimming with records and medals and it was inevitable that USA would avoid adding a world champion prospect in their already rich mix of athletes.

Although with such a rich history, it is peculiar to note that US runners have been devoid of an Olympic gold since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Who knows? Rai could just be the one.

With Rai withdrawing from the European Diamond League in 2021, connoisseurs were kept bereft of a teaser for the 400-metre hurdles battle in Tokyo. Karsten and Rai haven't gone head-to-head since Karsten came on top in the World Championships in 2019 beating Rai by a whisker.

Adding the 21-year-old South American champion Alison dos Santos into the mix and we have a prospective trio for ruling track events in the near future.

Three Olympic debutants, three continental champions and a battle that promises to go down to the finishing line. Fans can't stop lingering into the prospect of how this rivalry could blossom into legacy. I'm sure Rai, being as chill as he claims to be, would be tested in what promises to be a hot Japanese summer.


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