India's Olympic fourth place finishes: From Milkha Singh, PT Usha to Aditi Ashok, women's hockey team

There really is no place worse than fourth, it is the most undesired and unenviable spot to be in and India has had quite a few of those podium misses at the Summer Olympic Games.

We track down the closest fourth place finishes India has had in the Summer Olympics.

There were 339 gold medals to be won at the Tokyo Olympics, which means there were at least 339 athletes who finished fourth and headed back home with that sinking feeling of having come so close to an Olympic medal. Almost a medal winner. So close and yet so far.  And what if a hundredth of a second or a millimetre of length is what stood between the athlete who finished fourth and the podium? There really is no place worse than fourth, it is the most undesired and unenviable spot to be in. And if it happens to be your last Olympics, there is no way to reverse that heartbreak.

It has been over 60 years since Milkha Singh missed the bronze by the narrowest of margins, three decades since P.T. Usha’s agonizingly close finish in the 400m hurdles. Milkha Singh was extremely distraught after the race, PT Usha was in depression for three days, and India is still smarting from those near misses. For a country like USA which has so far collected over 2500 medals, the fourth-place finishes may probably remain an inconvenient statistic alongside the incredulous medal haul. For a nation that has collected 28 medals in total at the Olympics till 2016, fourth place finishes have been a difficult reality to fathom.

India has been too parched for Olympic success to ignore these lost opportunities.

But the concerned athlete, whether he belongs to India or the USA, will carry the regret for a lifetime.

We track down the closest fourth place finishes in Olympic history:


Milkha Singh at the 1960 Rome Olympics   -  The Hindu Archives


Milkha Singh, men’s 400m race, 1960 Rome Olympics

After an insipid debut at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Milkha Singh zealously worked towards making it count in Rome. He spilt blood, pushed his body to the zenith, shattered records, ruled the continental championships and had made all the right noises to be a medal contender in Rome Olympics.

After smoothly cruising in the heats and the semifinal, Milkha Singh was ready to realise his Olympic dream with one last spirited run in the final. Starting in lane five, he was off the blocks smoothly and was charging through the first 200-mark. At the 250m-mark, his split-second decision to slow down a bit cost him dear. Malcolm Spence of South Africa would first overtake him followed by Otis Davis of US and Carl Kauffman of Germany. . “In retrospect, I can say that it was here that the gold was won and lost,” he would later confess. Milkha Singh tried his best to accelerate towards the end and almost matched Spence in a photo finish, but fell short by a tenth of a second for bronze. He broke down on the track. “I had worked extremely hard to get there, vomited blood and pushed myself to the brink during training, but it all came to nothing,” Milkha Singh recollected in ‘My Olympic Journey’, a collection of memoirs from India’s famous Olympians.

READ: Milkha would have got Olympic medals if he had been running now, says P.T. Usha


PT Usha   -  The Hindu Archives


PT Usha, women’s 400m hurdles, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics

PT Usha had already set the expectations high after setting an Asian record with gold medal-winning performance in the 400m at the Asian Championships. Though she switched to 400m hurdles only a year before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the ‘Payyoli Express’ shook the nation’s imagination with her daredevilry and came very close to gifting independent India the elusive athletics medal 20 years after Milkha Singha’s nerve-wracking fourth-place finish.

But, a hundredth of a second, a dip at the end that didn’t happen, was all that separated PT Usha from standing on that podium with a bronze medal around her neck.

Starting on Lane 5, PT Usha thought she had a perfect start, but Australian Debbie Flintoff’s premature take-off forced the organisers to recall the race. The restart, however, didn’t go Usha’s way. She suffered a lapse in concentration and began slowly, taking 6.9 seconds for the first hurdle where she usually manages in 6.2 seconds. Having slipped to the eighth place and with nothing to lose, PT Usha began charging with gay abandon and crossed the finish line in what she assumed to be the third place. Romania’s Cistieana Cojocaru dipped her chest exactly at the finish line while PT Usha just coasted across. Having never had the need to dip in Asian meets, Usha paid the price for her lack of experience and finished one hundredth of a second behind the Romanian. Three decades have passed and the wait continues for India in athletics.

READ: Stakeholders unite to take Kerala sports to greater heights


Dipa Karmakar   -  Reuters


Dipa Karmakar, women’s vault in artistic gymnastics, 2016 Rio Olympics

This is one fourth-place finish India lapped up without rueing a missed podium. For one, no one even expected an Indian to first qualify for Olympics in gymnastics. Hailing from Agartala, Dipa Karmakar had no access to world-class facilities. She, in fact, had trained in the early days with an indigenous vault set-up made of second-hand parts of a discarded scooter. But adversity often brings the best in athletes. For the world to take notice, Dipa had to pull off something spectacular and she did. At the vault finals in Rio, where Simone Biles was expected to hog all the limelight, word got around that the 22-year-old from India was about to attempt a Produnova, also called the vault of death – a triple flip to the mat after running full tilt to the vault table. It was a triple something even Simone Biles said she wouldn’t dare attempt.

Dipa Karmakar, however, began with a Tsukahara 720 and reserved the Produnova for her second vault. The first vault fetched her a score of 14.866 points and surprisingly kept her in medal contention. The Produnova in her second vault gave her a score of 15.266. For few splendid moments, Dipa Karmakar’s named flashed bright in the second spot, before Biles and Russia’s Maria Paseka could complete their routine. In the end, Dipa Karmakar finished fourth, just 0.150 points lesser than Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland.

READ: India's first Olympic gymnastics judge Deepak Kabra is living the dream in Tokyo


Joydeep Karmakar in shooting, 2012 London Olympics

Joydeep Karmakar came almost half a point close to a medal before ending up a creditable fourth in the 50-metre rifle prone event in the Olympics.

Karmakar came up with a series of 10.1, 10.6, 10.7, 10.5, 10.7, 10.2, 10.0, 10.2, 10.7 and 10.4 to eventually miss the medal by 1.9 points.

“I was a different person today. I was totally focused and sure that I would give my best. I am not happy with the fourth place, but am happy with my performance,” he said after the event.

As nine shooters tied for five of the eight spots in the final, with 595, Karmakar, who had shot a series of 99, 98, 100, 98, 100 and 100, had to go through the qualifying shoot-off and just about pulled through with a score of 51.6.

READ: Why shooter Joydeep Karmakar doesn’t attend medal ceremonies


Abhinav Bindra in shooting, 2016 Rio Olympics

After a historic individual gold medal, India's first at the Summer Olympics, in Beijing 2008, Abhinav Bindra's quest for a 2nd Olympics medal ended in heartbreak as he missed a medal by a whisker in a tense shoot-off in the men's 10m air rifle event.

Bindra  lost the shoot-off against Ukrainian Serhiy Kulish after both were tied for third place at 163.8 points after 16 shots.

Playing in his fifth and final Olympics, he was deprived of a fairytale ending to his glorious career as he was the fifth shooter to be eliminated in the race for the podium.

Bindra just could not make it count in the shoot-off as he was beaten by his opponent and with it ended his dreams of becoming a double Olympic medallist and join wrestler Sushil Kumar.

READ: Abhinav Bindra on his 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal: Living in the moment


Indian Women's hockey team, 2020 Tokyo Olympics

The Rani Rampal-led Indian women's hockey team came into the Tokyo Games after a run-up campaign spent in lockdown with quite a few of the team members contracting COVID-19. The side was ranked ninth and got off to a shaky start losing to Netherlands (1-5), Germany (0-2) and Great Britain (1-4). However, the side managed to beat Ireland 1-0 and South Africa 4-3 to keep its hopes alive. Favourable results in the group helped the side make the quarterfinal.

The Indian side punched above its weight triggering an upset to knock three-time Olympic gold medallist Australia to make the semifinal - the first in the history of the side. India was then to meet Argentina to fight for a place in the final and more importantly, guarantee the side a medal - the same Argentine side that knocked India out of the Rio Olympics after beating them 5-0 in the group fixture.

Call it deja vu, but this time around, India nearly snuck through. A close 1-0 defeat in the semifinal ended hopes of managing one of the top two medals but India had a chance to clinch bronze. Drawn against Great Britain, India began with goalie Savita Punia saving two penalty corners and three field goal attempts. GBR opened the scoring with two goals but Gurjit Kaur brought India back into th game. Vandana Katariya added a third goal to the mix giving India the lead. It was a thrilling turn of events, even allowing the side to dream of a medal but Hollie Pearne-Webb levelled the score line. Grace Balsdon followed that with a goal from a penalty corner to end India's hopes of managing a podium finish, with the side finishing fourth. The Indian side was down on its knees, almost all of them in tears when the clock ran out.

The now former Indian coach, Sjoerd Marijne said, "Listen, I can’t take away your tears. No words will help for that. We didn’t win the medal, but I think we achieved something bigger, and it’s inspiring a country and make the country proud....I think the world have seen another Indian team, and I’m really proud of that."

READ: Bronze lost, hearts won: Indian women's hockey puts up stirring fight in Tokyo


Aditi Ashok in golf, 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Aditi Ashok, ranked 200th in the world, fell agonisingly short of a historic podium finish after four rounds of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics women's golf on Saturday.

Ranked 200 in the world, Ashok kept snapping at the heels of top-ranked Nelly Korda of USA and former world number one Lydia Ko of New Zealand.

Ashok had been in silver medal contention after 54 holes on Friday. She looked poised to win a medal as late as the final hole too, but a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th that slid by the hole kept her off the podium by one shot. Aditi finished with 15-under 269, just two strokes behind gold medalist Korda and missed the bronze by a whisker.

"At this event you need to be in the top 3. I didn't leave anything out there, I think I gave it my hundred percent, but, yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks," she said after the event.

READ: Aditi Ashok after fourth-place finish: I think I gave it my 100 per cent



Gary Ilman   -  The Hindu Archives


USA’s Gary Ilman, Men’s 100m freestyle swimming, 1964 Tokyo Olympics

In an era before touchpad timers and electronic timers, swimming results were often decided by lane judges with manual stopwatches. After a gold was awarded to John Devitt purely by the preference of the chief judge despite a split decision from the six judges present at the lane in the 1960 Rome Olympics, host Japan decided to provide electronic timers for the 1964 Games. Though it wasn’t officially approved for use, Germany’s Hans-Joachim Klein would forever be grateful for its invention. The men’s 100m freestyle event saw American Gary Ilman and Klein heading to a photo finish for the bronze. Both had clocked the same time, even to the hundredth of the second.  The electronic timer suggested that Klein was one-thousandth of a second quicker to the finish line than Ilman. The judges, despite the electronic timer not officially approved for use, took into consideration that irrefutable fact and awarded the bronze medal to Germany’s Hans-Joachim Klein. Touchpad timers, which allows the athletes to self-time their finish and leaves little margin for error, was introduced from the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

READ: Olympic legends: Cathy Freeman – Born to Run

Raymond Bilney, Cycling - men’s individual road race, 1964 Tokyo Olympics

The 1964 individual cycling road race in Olympics is considered to be the tightest finish in history as 99 cyclists crossed the finish line within a blink of an eye. The difference between gold medallist Mario Zenin on Italy (4:39:51.63) and the 99th placed Sayed Esmail Hosseini from Iran was calculated to be two-tenth of a second! 


The silver was awarded to Denmark’s Kjell Rodian (4:39:51.65) while bronze went to Walter Godefroot from Belgium (4:39:51.74). Interestingly, 25 more riders finished with the same timing of 4:39:51.74 with Australia’s Raymond Bilney settling for the fourth place.


USA's Gwen Torrence   -  The Hindu Archives


Gwen Torrence, women’s 100m sprint, 1992 Barcelona Olympics

When the women’s 100m race got over at the Barcelona Olympics, there were no celebrations. Five runners seemingly crossed the finish line together and there was simply no way they could figure out who finished in the Top 3. It required a slow-motion replay and analysis of the finish before the winner could be declared at the stadium, In the end, it was American Gail Denvers who was found to be the fastest at 10.82 seconds. Jamaica’s Juliet Cuthbert (10.83) and Irina Privalova of Russia (10.84) completed the podium with Gwen Torrence falling just short for a fourth-place finish at 10.86s and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica taking the up the fifth place at 10.88s.

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