Merely for the number of Indians who have agonised for over half a century replaying a race again and again in their mind and hoping it would some day throw up a different result, Milkha Singh’s 400 metres final run at the Rome Olympics should rank among the greatest heartbreaks in global sporting history.
However, ceaseless adulation for the man decades later is a tribute to the magnitude of effort by India’s greatest track athlete on that September day in the Italian capital, though he still missed out on becoming India’s first Olympic track medalist.
India has in the last few years judged success purely in terms of medals, but looking into the past reveals how a more generous generation saluted Milkha as a pioneer.
Milkha has and will win all arguments about who is India’s finest track athlete of all times. He remains the only Indian male to win an individual Commonwealth Games athletics gold — he won the 400 yards at Cardiff in 1958.
The win was made more special as unlike now, none of the top track and field names missed the Commonwealth Games then. And Milkha defeated favourite Malcolm Spence.
The South African was also expected to win in Rome until a late injury, eventually snatching bronze from Milkha. But then the top four all broke the Olympic record with Otis Davis sealing victory with a world record.
Despite that shattering miss, “The Flying Sikh” was a feared contender in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, thanks to his punishing regimen that reflected his sheer will to win. In fact, in 1958, he won an award for being one of the fastest athletes in the world.
His 200-400 double at the 1958 Tokyo Asiad alone was good enough to draw global attention. That he went on to defend his 400 title in the Jakarta Asian Games four years later was a tribute to his longevity as well.
His national 400m record stood for 38 years, the Asian mark for 26 years. Many world class athletes followed him, the most prominent being the versatile Gurbhachan Singh Randhawa, who came fifth in the 110m hurdles final at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sriram Singh too set an Asian record while finishing seventh in the 800m final at the 1976 Montreal Games. For sheer degree of difficulty, the 5,000-10,000 double by Hari Chand, India’s finest distance runner, at the 1978 Bangkok Asiad stands up there.
HT spoke to the one person who can empathise best with Milkha - PT Usha. The former Asian track queen was winning every race distance from 100-400 in the continent when she went into the 400m hurdles final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as a certain medal bet. But her Olympic medal dream too was dashed, as she missed a bronze by 1/100th of a second.
Once she started speaking, Usha did not want to stop, showing what Milkha meant to her and those who followed in his footsteps.
There was lot of emotion as Usha explained what Milkha’s achievements meant to successive generations, his victories as important as the circumstances in which he rose to prominence, having overcome the trauma of partition and the killing of his parents and then initial rejection by the army.
Usha did travel that path, and her own story was no less inspiring for generations of young girls to take up sport. “It is said he used to be so exhausted after every training session, he used to vomit before leaving the ground. That used to be the case with me too, I know that feeling,” Usha added.