Milkha Singh – So Near Yet So Far

As a pioneering great Milkha Singh will be a leading contender for the title of greatest Indian sportsman of all time. It was the ``Flying Sikh’’ who forced the sporting world to focus attention on Indian athletics with his outstanding performances on the track the world over. He won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1958 and multiple gold medals at the Asian Games in 1958 and 1962. Ironically his best remembered race is the 400 metres final at the Rome Olympics in 1960 when he missed the bronze medal by a whisker.

But it certainly was his greatest race and without doubt the greatest performance by an Indian sportsman in track and field in the history of the Olympics. Milkha actually made his Olympic debut at Melbourne in 1956 but in his own words ``I was totally lost, like an uneducated child.

The clear superiority of the others in the fray not only shocked me but inspired me. I whipped up the guts to ask Charles Jenkins (the American winner of the 400 metres) for some tips. He was very pleasant and even went to the extent of writing out a training schedule for me.’’ This was to mark a turning point in Milkha’s athletics career for he really pushed himself to the limit by following Jenkins’ schedule rigorously.

But there would be rewards to follow for he was peaking perfectly for the Rome Olympics and his name was spreading far and wide. By the late fifties he was one of the most famous Indians of his time and in 1959 was awarded America’s Helms Trophy in recognition of being the best quarter miler of the year. In his authoritative book ``Athletics: a history of modern track and field athletics’’ Italian sports historian Roberto Quercetani makes a special mention of Milkha’s exploits. ``Even more surprising was the rise to fame of the compact Milkha Singh of India who acted as an ice breaker in a country of untapped athletic potential.

In 1958 he won the Commonwealth Games 440 yards title at Cardiff in 46.6 seconds beating South African Mal Spence among others. In 1960 he came to Europe early to practice having by then times of 20.07 and 46.1 to his credit. Just before the Olympics he improved to 45.9 an outstanding achievement at a time when hardly another man in the whole Asian continent could beat 48 seconds.’’ On the basis of his excellent showing Milkha went into the Rome Olympics as one of the favourites for a medal.

The fireworks began in the quarterfinals when Otis Davis who had lowered his personal best to 45.6 just before Rome equalled the Olympic record of 45.9. He then went on to win the first semifinal in 45.5 followed by Milkha (45.9) and Manfred Kinder of Germany (46.0). Such was the strength of the field that Robbie Brightwall who lowered the British record to 46.2 was eliminated. In the other semifinal Carl Kauffmann came through easily in 45.7 while Spence (45.8) and Earl Young (46.1) were the other qualifiers for the final.

A total of 54 competitors from 41 nations had striven against each other for the honour to reach the final and among them was India’s pride and joy. Milkha had beaten all the top quarter milers in the world in the run-up to Rome except the American Davis.

Some time back in his own words Milkha recalled the race in crystal clear terms. ``Going into the stadium for the final I was quite relaxed but when I saw my rivals the tension mounted. I drew lane five with the South African Spence to my left and the German Kinder to my right. I was going strong till about 250 metres. But then I slowed down a bit. I thought the pace was very fast and I would fizzle out in the end if I continued at that speed.

At that point I even looked back or maybe it was just a side glance. But that fraction of a second decided my fate. One by one they all caught up with me - Spence, Kauffmann and Davis. My mistake will rankle within my heart till my dying days. I could not wipe out the deficit of those six or seven yards in the last 100 metres though I was running at my best. I desperately tried to catch up at least with Spence whom I had beaten in the Commonwealth Games.

We pressed the finishing line almost together but by then I knew I had made a crucial mistake. Still hoping against hope I waited for the official photo finish. But as bad luck would have it I was declared fourth even though my time (45.6) was better than the existing Olympic record of 45.9. Davis and Kauffmann were both clocked at the world record time of 44.9 while Spence was third in 45.5’’ The race was considered one of the greatest of all time with the first two breaking the world record and the third and fourth the Olympics record.

Even the fifth and sixth place (Kinder and Young) who both clocked 45.9 broke the pre - Rome Olympics mark. It was that kind of race but this was scant consolation for the heartbroken Milkha who took a long time in getting over the disappointment. He was in tears on the flight back to India but in time regained his composure and even won a second 400 metres gold at the Asian Games at Jakarta two years later. At 81 Milkha happily is still with us leading a contended retired life in Chandigarh, very fit for his age and pleased with the progress of his Chiranjeev who is one of India’s top golfers.