Oh, Henry...

The weather was typical of London, cold and damp with a light drizzle. Called up again after 15 minutes, Rebello made what he called his "two big mistakes."

GULU EZEKIEL

Henry Rebello... so near and yet so far.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE career of triple jumper Henry Rebello was a brief but brilliant one. He competed in independent India's first Olympics in London in 1948 where he was a genuine medal prospect. But his first leap in the final was shattered by an injury. It remains one of Indian sport's most tragic stories.

Rebello was not particularly keen on sports as a child. Rather, he was a brilliant student throughout his scholastic years. But when his family moved from Lucknow to Bangalore, his school (Baldwin Boys' High School) made it compulsory for all to take part in sports.

One day he was caned for not reporting on time for the evening sports session. "When my father went to complain to the headmaster, he was told in no uncertain terms "Mr. Rebello, these are the rules of the school. If you do not like them, you can remove your son."

Thus was born the career of one of the unsung heroes of Indian sport, a career that would burn brightly but briefly, like a meteor.

Rebello took up athletics at 16 and used to compete in inter-school meets where there would be great rivalry between his school and others like Bishop Cotton. With no formal training and no coach to speak of, Rebello began to break records in the long jump and triple jump, then known as `Hop, Step and Jump'. He learned the technique for his pet event from American `flicker books' which showed top athletes of the time in action.

Henry won his first gold medal at the age of 18 — just two years after taking up athletics — at the 1946 All-India `Olympic' meet in Bangalore.

In February 1948 he took the first step towards the Olympics by winning the National triple jump title astounding everyone with a national record of 50 feet 2 inches (15.29 metres) at the All-India meet in Lucknow. Had it not been raining — which made the ground wet and soft — Rebello was sure he would have crossed 51 feet.

That mark stood unchallenged for over two decades and was enough to book Henry Rebello a berth to the London Olympics. It also happened to be the best mark of the year worldwide, which automatically made him a medal prospect — the only other jumper to come close to achieving this distance was Brazilian Adhemar Ferreira Da Silva.

The new mark meant he had registered an improvement of three feet in just two years. But he was more than a triple jumper. He had a best of nearly 23 feet in the long jump and 10.9 seconds in the 100 metres. As if that weren't enough, he could clear 6 ft in the high jump. By this time he had entered St. Joseph's College and athletics had become an obsession; with training sessions going on from early morning to late at night.

His record made him the centre of attraction in London with many experts, including the legendary Harold Abrahams, picking him out as one of the favourites for the gold.

That confidence was justified at meet organised for overseas athletes at Motspur Park held a fortnight before the Games. Still not out of his teens, Rebello was competing against the world's best and immediately made his mark. He registered an amazing 52 feet, one-and-a-half inches — just four-and-a-half inches less than the world record held by Japan's Naoto Tajima. The jump was, however, ruled invalid as he had crossed the line by half an inch.

Still, his next best jump of 50 feet was enough to beat George Avery of Australia by more than two feet and won him first place. Avery was also counted among the favourites and his coach, Jim Metcalfe (the 1936 bronze medalist), immediately hailed Henry as a sure bet for gold.

The big day was August 3 with the Olympics in full swing. The qualifying rounds were held in the morning. Rebello easily made it to the final by clearing 49 feet, the qualifying mark being 48 feet 6 inches. Only the top 12 finishers made it to the final to be held in the afternoon.

"We were huddled in our tracksuits and under blankets to keep ourselves warm," remembered Rebello. "I was training with Ruhi Sarialp of Turkey when it was time for my turn. I was wondering how to approach the event. Should I go for a big jump in my first effort or keep it till the third or fourth attempt? I took off the track suit and was getting ready when an official suddenly stopped me as a prize distribution ceremony was about to commence near the jumping pit."

The weather was typical of London, cold and damp with a light drizzle. Called up again after 15 minutes, Rebello made what he called his "two big mistakes."

"I was just 19-and-a-half and inexperienced. I should have insisted on some time for warming up. That was my first mistake — not to warm-up. My second was to go flat out on my first jump. We had a total of six and I should have taken things easy at the start."

The result was both sad and predictable. "I approached the take off board at considerable speed. I got my take off foot on the board and started to take off for the first phase of the triple jump — the hop. Then, suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my right hamstring muscle and heard a sort of `thwack' like the snapping of a bowstring. My right hamstring muscle had ruptured. I was thrown off balance completely and landed with a tumble in the pit."

Rebello was carried off a stretcher in agony. His hopes and dreams had been crushed. The gold won by Sweden's Arne Ahman (15.40 m; 50 ft 6 and a quarter inches), while Avery took silver and Sarialp the bronze.

There was a further ironic twist to the tale. Da Silva too tore a muscle without warming up. But he became one of the early legends of the event by winning the gold both at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics. London effectively brought the curtain down on Rebello's athletics journey, one that had started with some reluctance and ended in pain and dejection.

"After that, studies and, then, my career took precedence. By the time the 1952 Olympics came around, I had just graduated from Loyola College in Madras and joined the Air Force. I was under training and was told I would lose a year in seniority if I took time off for the Olympics."

By then Rebello admitted to feeling de-motivated as training was no longer a pleasure and, soon, he gave up competitive athletics. Rebello's hard-luck story was to be repeated with depressing regularity for Indian athletes in subsequent Olympics over the years.

Who knows how things would have turned out had he won a medal and provided the inspiration for future generations?

He retired from the Air Force as Group Captain in 1980 and was the first Director of the Sports Authority of India from 1984-88. His elder son Mark was also a triple jumper.