Milkha Singh: That race in Rome, 1960
Milkha Singh went to the 1960 Rome Olympics as one of the world’s pre-eminent male quarter-milers. The quartet of Otis Davis, Carl Kaufmann, Malcolm Spence and Singh—they finished in that order in the 400m final at the Games—was the best in business and Singh was separated from a podium finish by one-tenth of a second. He was 30 then and had taken up serious running at 20.
In January 1959, Singh’s time of 46.6 over 440 yards (402.3m) was ratified as a British national record, according to Reuters. Singh had set the mark at the 1958 Commonwealth Games. It was a timing he shared with South African Spence. In November 1959, Spence shaved that by 0.5 seconds to 46.1 at a competition against West Germany in Orange Free State.
Going to the Olympics, Singh was the reigning Asian and Commonwealth Games 400m champion. According to reports in Hindustan Times, Singh began 1960 clocking 46.5 in an India-Iran-Pakistan athletic meet in Lahore. “Another athlete to better the Asian mark was Milkha Singh (India) who clipped off .01 seconds from the 400 metres record set by him in Tokyo (Asian Games) in 1958,” said the PTI report dated January 31, 1960. The report, like many in the lead-up to Rome, said Singh wasn’t seriously challenged.
In August, the month the Olympics began, Singh cruised to the 400m in 46.3 seconds at the Anglo-French Athletics Match at London’s White City Stadium. “Milkha Singh, India’s chief hope for a medal in the coming Rome Olympics,” was how the Reuters report from London on August 1 began. Six days later, Singh won the 440 yards race in Glasgow. It completed an England-Scotland double because Singh had bested the field in the British championships in July. On August 13, Singh eased to victory in the 400m at the British Games clocking 46.5 seconds.
Singh’s time of 46.5 was the joint-best with Kaufmann, who had beaten him twice in Europe in the build-up to Rome, in the Olympics’ heats. He improved that to 45.9, finishing second behind the USA’s Davis in the semi-final. That was the Olympic record going into the race which Davis won in 45.3. In the other semi-final, Kaufmann had clocked 45.8 and Spence 45.7
Singh timed 45.6 in the final, a race in which Davis and Kaufmann bettered the existing world record of 45.2 and finished on 44.9 and Spence finished on 45.5.
The possibility that Milkha took the lead in that final but had a lapse in focus as he worried if he was going too fast, is unlikely. His contemporary and Indian track great Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, in an interview to NDTV some years ago, said evidence of split timings received from the official time-keepers showed the closest Milkha came to leading was after 100m, when he was second.
Milkha put the debate in perspective, in an interview to Rajya Sabha TV a few years ago. He said spending three anxious days between the semi-final and final didn’t help and being allotted the fifth lane (in a six-man race) made it tougher to assess the rest of the field. “I overtook the man on the outside lane easily, but could not see where the others were,” he said. It provides the most plausible explanation for how the greatest race of his life unfolded.
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