Man who won gold at legendary 1960 race pays tribute to his track rival Milkha Singh

  • Milkha was a great runner, a very fast runner. He was in the finals, and I’m telling you, I was very concerned about him.
Otis Davis (second from left) and Milkha Singh during the men’s 400m semi-final at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Getty Images
Otis Davis (second from left) and Milkha Singh during the men’s 400m semi-final at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Getty Images
Updated on Jun 20, 2021 04:27 AM IST
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By Otis Davis

In that iconic photograph from the 1960 Rome Olympics, where Milkha Singh can be seen hurtling towards the finish line, the man who has already crossed the tape and is howling up at the sky is US runner Otis Davis, who had just broken the world 400m record. Davis, now 88, lives in New Jersey. Milkha Singh’s name makes him exclaim, “Oh man, he was fast!” Here’s how the winner of that legendary race remembers his Indian rival, the favourite going into the event:

Milkha was a great runner, a very fast runner. He was in the finals, and I’m telling you, I was very concerned about him.

It wasn’t just because he was one of the favourites coming into the race. I saw him one time before the heats when he was just practising, and he ran a few 47s. One of the sports writers watching it said, “Boy, he is fast! He is running 47s!” I was hearing all of that. But I told myself: he is going to have to run faster than that to beat me!

I had never interacted with him prior to our meeting in Rome. He just came to me before we ran and introduced himself. That’s when I got to know a little bit about him. Not only was he quick with his feet, he talked a lot too. I remember he told me, “You’re going to win, but if you don’t, then I’m going to win!” He was trying to psych me out a little, I think.

Even though I hadn’t met him prior to the Olympics, I was aware about his exploits leading up to it. I was even more aware about the fact that he was definitely one of the favourites. He had run against some of the other champion runners previously, and he had done good.

We ran together in the semi-final (where Milkha finished second behind Davis). It was his strength against mine. Clearly, he was ready for the race.

And that race! I remember he was running outside of me. And I saw him going fast, you know, real fast. He and (South Africa’s Malcolm) Spence, the guy who finished third, were really turning it on around the curve. That’s when I made my move. I made my move right after they did. But it was them who set the pace.

Everyone speaks about us (Davis and Kaufmann), but we had to keep rolling because these guys were flying!

After the race, he walked up to me and congratulated me, although I can’t remember the words. Of course, I knew he was disappointed. I had a lot of respect for the man. He was a great sportsman in every sense. And he was very popular too.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to him again after that Olympics. I went on a tour in Germany and then returned to the US.

That was a very fast race. It broke a world record. It broke a barrier. It was the best (400m) race in Olympic history. I truly believe it was. Because it had so many fast runners. Because it had some of the best in the world. Like Milkha.

As told to Rutvick Mehta

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Saturday, October 16, 2021