Estonia's Rasmus Mägi is challenging the status quo in a nation known for its throwers and multi eventers. He tells SPIKES how he became one of the world's best 400m hurdlers.
“There is a joke that I was born in a stadium,” laughs Rasmus Mägi when he discusses his beginnings in the sport. Athletics is “a family business” in the Mägi household. Mother Anne and father Taivo both competed in the 400m and 800m. Now they coach Rasmus, his sister Maris and a whole bunch of young Estonian athletes.
“They didn’t put me into kindergarten. I just spent my whole childhood in different stadiums, so that’s when and where I fell in love with the sport,” recalls Mägi. “There hasn’t been room for other sports in my heart, track and field has been the one from the start.”
For a country as small as Estonia (pop. 1.35million) the Baltic nation has produced some of the sport’s greatest athletes. Between 1996 and 2009, Estonia won at least one medal in major international athletics competitions in every year. The likes of decathlete Erki Nool and discus great Gerd Kanter paved the way for a strong heritage in multi events and the throws, but so far there is an oval shaped hole in Estonian athletics history.
Mägi started out as a multi eventer, “but once I started to grow I lost my speed and thought to myself, ‘I have to think of another event’.”
He always enjoyed the jumps, but his other attributes were pointing him towars the 400m hurdles. “I had a great stamina. I wasn’t the fastest, but I was elastic; I knew how to run the hurdles,” he recalls. The switch brought a raft of new challenges.
"There hasn’t been room for other sports in my heart"
Running the 400m flat is painful as it is – just ask world record holder Wayde van Niekerk. Throw in 10 hurdles and it becomes one of the most brutal disciplines in athletics.
“It is hard. Over the years I have had moments of doubt, asking myself ‘why am I doing it?’,” Mägi says, “but so far they’ve only lasted for maybe five minutes.”
As his choice of event reflects, Mägi likes a challenge. Proving that Estonians can sprint has become one of his “principle goals”.
“You don’t have to pick a throwing event or the mutli events,” he says. “I respect all of these guys who do the discus or the javelin, but I gave myself a challenge in my event and I hope that I can prove that it is possible.”
Mägi decided to put together his argument on home soil. Unlike many of his compatriots, he passed up scholarship opportunities at US universities, not wanting to remove himself from the rhythm of the European season.
“Since I was a kid I tried to observe everything,” he says. “I saw how hard it was to go to the States and last the NCAA season. A lot of the guys weren’t able to then produce in major championships. It is something I didn’t want to happen to me.”
His gamble paid off. International success came in 2013 when he took bronze at the European U23 Championships. His first senior medal followed in 2014 when he won silver at the European Championships in Zurich in 49.06.
These medals came as Mägi improved his raw speed as well as his understanding of his event.
“I think the 400 hurdles is just an event where you learn something, you put it in the race, you improve,” explains the 24-year-old. “I learn a lot about myself. How do you act in certain situations? What do you think? How do you feel? You embrace everything.”
Mägi ran three of the five fastest times of his career at the Rio Olympics
Having “struggled at the start of 2016”, he says his approach to Rio “was sort of an experiment”. At London 2012, his first Olympics, he had soaked up the experience and finished fifth in his heat. This year his focus was solely on racing – “no sightseeing, no watching other events”.
The tunnel vision worked wonders. Mägi found the form of his life, battling through the rounds with times within 0.10 of his personal best to become the first athlete ever to represent Estonia in an Olympic track final. There, he finished sixth in one of the most competitive 400m hurdles finals in history. Four men went sub-48-seconds, he clocked an impressive 48.40 national record from the inside lane. “It really worked out,” he says of his full focus.
Instead of resting on his Rio laurels, he went straight back on the European circuit. In Lausanne he got his first ever Diamond League victory, taking the major scalps of Olympic silver medallist Boniface Tumuti and world champion Nicholas Bett in the process. Within the space of 12 days the Estonian recorded five of the seven fastest times of his career. Mägi returned to his homeland a hero.
“Over the centuries Estonia has really admired its athletes. It really is a pleasure to be an athlete in Estonia,” he says of the media engagements that have occupied his time. “Before I allow myself to think about next year or the next four years, I need to take some time off to reflect on all the things [that happened] during the last four years.
“With the Olympics, it wasn’t just the end of this season, it was the end of the last four seasons. Next year marks the beginning of the next four seasons and I want to get everything out of my mind so I can get ready for the next four years.”
It is a fitting approach for someone who says the best thing about Estonia is that there are “really all four seasons, every three months [there is] a new situation”. With next year’s London World Championships on the horizon and the countdown to Tokyo 2020 officially on, we say bring on the next four seasons.