Finishing fourth in Rome Olympics - The pain lingers

For Milkha Singh, it has been a case of so near yet so far in the Olympics. The pain of coming empty-handed rankled Milkha.

Milkha Singh

Milkha Singh (right top corner) missed an Olympic track and field medal at Rome in 1960 by one hundredth of a second. It was one of the most memorable quarter-mile races.   -  Sportstar

Milkha Singh’s impressions:

EVEN after three decades, the memory of that September afternoon is still fresh. It started and ended in a few seconds; but the disappointment haunts me till this day.

The toil, the tension, the tears and the torment; I've lived with them all. Today when I recall those moments, my heart bleeds. Isn't it quite ironic that the best chapter of one's life should end in pain. For me, the pain is more than my words can ever describe. Missing an Olympic medal by a whisker has caused me more disappointment than the happiness which I experienced after winning gold medals in the Asian Games and from my winning sequence all over Europe.

Looking back, I would say that it is all a matter of luck. I am sure Ron Clarke would agree with that. The great Australian middle distance runner set 17 world records but could not win an Olympic gold!

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In the ultimate analysis, even to this day, I regret not having entered the 200 metres, where I feel I could have easily figured among the medal winners. There is no question about it. In the 200 metres, even while running all alone, I was clocking 20.6 or 20.7. The man who won this event in Rome clocked 20.5 and the silver medallist was timed 20.9.

You see, the guidance or the lack of it from the coach plays a crucial part in the eventual performance of an athlete. Initially, I had planned to take part in the 200 metres as well but my coach (Umrao Singh) was not too encouraging. He felt that I might pull a muscle in the short sprint. So he told me to concentrate on the 400 metres since I was certain of a medal. This is one decision I will regret all my life.

Most of the spectators in Europe used to take me for a 'sage'. Perhaps, my appearance gave them that impression. They had not seen any athlete with a 'joodf (long hair). That's why the roar of 'Milkha, Milkha' would rent the air, everytime I stepped into the arena.

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My preparation for the race was complete. In the four months preceding the Olympics, I had won about 25 to 30 races all over Europe and I was prepared for both the 200 and 400. I was in peak condition and could run even three races under an hour. In the pre-race predictions, several experts had opined that "Singh from India will win the 400m in Rome." And I was confident of living up to the expectations.

To a certain extent, my experience had helped me get over the anxiety which normally precedes every big event. Running in heat six of the first round, I came second behind J. Yerman of the US in 47.6. In the second round, I could watch the German Karl Kaufmann and we clocked an identical 46.5 and moved into the semifinals. I was happy with my time and was quite sure of improving it. It was in the semifinal that American Otis Davis stood out as a serious contender. His time of 45.5 had equalled the Olympic record, while I followed him in 45.9, ahead of Manfred Kinder of Germany who made the final in 46.0.

Davis had not run with me before, and had come to Rome as a member of the relay team. In the US Olympic trials, Davis was fourth but was allowed to compete as one of the members of his team pulled a muscle. Davis had taken up 400m only in 1958 but suddenly, he appeared threatening. The other semifinal saw Kaufmano romp home (in 45.7), just ahead of South African Mal Spence (45.8), and American Earl Young (46.1). So the six-man final was expected to offer a thrilling fare.

I would have been happy if the semifinals and the final were slated for the same day. But things were not to my liking.With more than a day to go for the final, I somewhat felt nervous and kept pacing up and down in my room to steady my nerves. To ease the tension, Umrao Singh suggested that we go around the beautiful city of Rome. I returned around 10 p.m. and slept well.

Next morning, I went to the stadium and went through the routine gymnastic exercises. Somehow, with every passing minute, the tension was mounting. I could see other runners warming up, too, but felt that today was going to be my day. When the first call was given, the runners crossed the lawn and went to the track. Wild applause cheered each of us as our lane number was announced.

However, the draw of lots was not in my favour as I was drawn in lane number five. Kaufmann was in the inside lane, next to him was Earl Young. Lane number three was occupied by Otis Davis, to my left was Malcolm Spence, whom I had beaten in the Commonwealth Games. On my right was Kinder, the only athlete I could keep my eyes on.

As the starter fired the gun, I took off smoothly, overtook Kinder inside the 200-metre mark and stepped up the pace. Around the 250-mark I was running perilously fast. It was here that I decided to slow down a bit lest I should break down in the middle. And this is one decision I rue even to this day. In retrospect, I can say that it was here that the gold was won and lost.

Spence caught up with me and so did Davis and Kaufmann. In the last 100 metres, I found myself trailing the trio by about six-seven metres. I gave it all I had. I tried to catch up at least with Spence but it proved in vain. Spence had the advantage of running in the lane next to Davis, whom he had almost used like a pace-setter. We crossed the line almost together.

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As it was a photo-finish, the result was held up and the suspense which followed was excruciating. When the results were announced there was a roar in the stadium. The Olympic record lay shattered and so was my dream. Just one error of judgment had dragged me down to the fourth place (behind Davis (44.9), Kaufmann (44.9) and Spence (45.5). The fact that my time (45.6) was better than the previous Olympic record (45.9) did little to lessen the impact of the blow. I broke down on the track. The medal I had set my eyes on had eluded me. Although Davis and Kaufmann had clocked 44.9, the gold went to the American as, on automatic timings, he had recorded 45.07s against German's 45.08.

My failure to win a medal had left the Indians heartbroken. I was, of course, very disappointed. I kept thinking as to how I was going to face my people on my return. I was so depressed that I decided to postpone my return for a few days and went on to take part in England, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. When I boarded the return flight from London, the painful moment gripped me again. To escape the mounting sorrow, I drank liquor like never before. By the time I arrived in Bombay, I was in a drunken state. Despite my empty-handed return, I was given a warm welcome. My well-wishers tried to console me by reminding me that my performance was better than the previous Olympic record.

But that was not enough to put my mind at peace. I knew I had missed a chance of a lifetime. It was indeed the chance of my lifetime. They say time is the greatest healer. But for me, almost 32 years later, the pain lingers on and rankles. And I know, I will live with it until my dying day.

(As told to Rakesh Rao)

(The article was first published in the Sportstar magazine dated July 2, 1992)

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