Randhawa, a rare breed

GURBACHAN SINGH RANDHAWA (fourth from right) fighting it out in the 110m hurdles final in the Tokyo Olympics. Hayes Jones (extreme left) finished first and Randhawa came fifth in the race.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY GURBACHAN SINGH RANDHAWA (fourth from right) fighting it out in the 110m hurdles final in the Tokyo Olympics. Hayes Jones (extreme left) finished first and Randhawa came fifth in the race.

Like Milkha Singh, Randhawa too was given the opportunity of competing extensively in Europe before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and this helped him immensely, writes GULU EZEKIEL.

Gurbachan Singh Randhawa was perhaps the most versatile athlete India has ever produced. He tasted success early on and won a number of events at the school and college level. He was the star athlete of Punjab University, excelling in hurdles, high jump and many other track and field events besides. But on the advice of a coach, he decided to concentrate on decathlon.

Randhawa achieved national success at the age of 21. At the 1960 Delhi Nationals he broke Cheema Muthiah's national record with a tally of 5,793 points. He proved his remarkable versatility by also winning the high jump, javelin and 110 metres hurdles at the Nationals, breaking four national records over a span of two days.

At the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Randhawa proved that he was the best in the continent in the tough ten-event discipline. His tally of 6,739 points gave him the gold with silver medallist Shosuke Suzuki of Japan trailing by almost 550 points. Randhawa later set the National record of 6,912 points, a mark that would remain unbroken for 12 years. A shoulder injury after Jakarta forced him to switch from decathlon to the 110 metres hurdles. He gave credit to Hungarian coach Jozef Kovacs, who was a visiting coach at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, for teaching him the art of warming-up.

Like Milkha Singh, four years before him, Randhawa too was given the opportunity of competing extensively in Europe before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and this helped him immensely when it came to the big occasion. He was 25 and had also competed at Rome four years earlier.

At Tokyo, the hurdler was given the honour of being the flag-bearer of the Indian contingent.

Randhawa remembers the race well. "Tokyo in October had a fair amount of rain. We were praying for good weather as the track was of cinder. But despite the heavy downpour, it remained firm."

The line-up for the 110 metres hurdles was an impressive one. A total of 37 competitors from 23 nations were vying for the eight places in the final to be run on October 18. But one of the front-runners, Willie Davenport who had won the US Olympics trial, was eliminated after suffering a leg injury in the semi-finals. He would win the gold in 1968.

There were five heats to decide the finalists with the first three from each heat and the fastest loser qualifying for the semi-finals.

In the heat, Randhawa was in lane four, which was an advantage as he could keep an eye on his rivals on both sides. Recalls Randhawa: "Because of my lack of basic speed I was not good at starts. I took off rather slowly. But my hard training in different events had given me a lot of endurance and staying power. That came in handy. I covered a lot of ground between the fifth and eighth hurdles and almost caught up with the American Hayes Jones and Frenchman Marcel Duriez. I finished fourth in 14.3 seconds. But my painful wait was over when it was announced that I had qualified for the semi-finals as the fastest loser."

In the semi-finals Randhawa was pitted against the Unified Team of Germany's John Heinrich, Duriez, Anatoly Mikhailov (USSR), Giorgio Mazza (Italy), Lazaro Betancourt (Cuba), Davenport (US) and Valentine Chistyakov (USSR). He had clocked better than three of his rivals and was confident of making it to the final. Chistyakov jumped the gun twice and was disqualified.

"It was a tough race," Randhawa recalls. "My joy knew no bounds when I looked at the giant scoreboard to see that I had finished second in a personal best of 14 seconds which was also the national record."

The final was to be staged 45 minutes later, just enough time for a massage and a quick nap.

The final had a line-up of two Americans, one Soviet, a Frenchman, three Italians (they were battling with Americans for supremacy in the high hurdles) and the lone Indian. In the words of Randhawa: "Once off to the start, everything was forgotten. Again I had a slow start but I surged smoothly ahead of Duriez. Up front, the Italians Girogio Mazza and Giovanni Cornacchia were struggling. Duriez tripped on the final hurdle and that gave me a slight advantage, allowing me to catch up with him at the tape."

Americans Hayes Jones and H. Blaine Lindgren had run evenly for almost the entire race. But Lindgren was pipped at the tape.

Jones won in a time of 13.6 seconds, below the world record of 13.2 held jointly by Martin Lauer and Lee Calhoun. Lindgren was second in 13.7. Mikhailov finished third in 13.7, the same time clocked by the silver medallist. Italy's Eddy Ottoz, who was to claim the bronze four years later, took the fourth place in 13.8.

According to Randhawa: "I had barely recovered from the effort when I saw the scoreboard. Light flashed on it, but soon they were put off. When they came on again, my name was at the fourth spot. But they went off again. When the lights returned I was in the fifth spot. The timing was 14 seconds." Following Randhawa were Duriez (also 14 seconds), Cornacchia and Mazza (both 14.1), showing how close the finish was. "I have no regrets", Randhawa was to say years later, looking back at Tokyo. "Maybe I should have broken the 14 second barrier. I have had my share of bad luck in life. But I must tell you that I was lucky at Tokyo to get into the semis as the fastest loser."

The Randhawas are a sporting family. His father was a well-known athlete in Punjab while Gurbachan followed in his footsteps and also took to hurdling.

Randhawa's national record in decathlon was broken after 12 years and that too by one of his own pupils, Vijay Singh Chauhan. There is a general feeling that had the facilities in his days been better, Randhawa would have reached world heights in decathlon.

Randhawa's 14.0 was recorded by hand timing. Later the IAAF also "accepted" an automatic timing of 14.09. In 2001 Gurpreet Singh set a time of 14.07 at Lucknow and last year at Hyderabad the mark was lowered to 14.05 by Naunidh Singh.