How a fraction of a second left Milkha Singh short of Olympic glory
Track and field has not been India’s forte at the Olympic Games.
But while finding an Indian equivalent of a Usain Bolt is an ongoing pursuit, the country has unearthed some track and field treasures in the past.
Milkha Singh was one such gem.
One of the most celebrated athletes of his generation, the nation had its hopes pinned on Milkha coming into the 1960 Games in Rome. The ‘Flying Sikh’, as he was popularly nicknamed, was into his second Olympics and was coming into the quadrennial extravaganza on the back of a splendid show at the 1958 Asian Games, where he had won the 400m gold in Tokyo.
He might have dominated the continental stage - his back-to-back gold medals at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games a testament to this - but one race that Milkha Singh fondly remembers is the one where he turned out to be a gallant loser, finishing fourth at the Rome 1960 Olympics.
A photo finish
Participating in the 400m race, Milkha Singh got through the heats with relative ease. The quarter-finals saw him better his timing by more than a second while in the semis, he would finish behind USA’s Otis Davis in 45.9 seconds, the fourth-fastest to make it to the final.
With impressive timings in all the preliminary races, the Indian was one of the favourites going into the final. And the manner in which he started the race, it looked like India’s dream of winning a track medal at the Olympics could finally come true.
Firing off the blocks, Milkha was quick to join the lead pack. He continued to push himself, keeping his pace up for much of the first part of the run and looked certain of a podium finish, which would have created history for India at the Olympics.
However, an error in judgment saw him slow down before the final turn, giving Malcolm Spence of South Africa enough room to close down on the Indian.
The move proved too costly for Milkha Singh, as Spence edged ahead to take the bronze medal in 45.5 seconds while the Indian fell mighty close, finishing his run 0.1 seconds slower, leading to a photo finish at the line and leaving him wondering about the ‘what-ifs’.
The race was won by Otis Davis clocking 44.9 seconds, a world record then, and by a paper-thin margin over German Carl Kaufmann.
"I knew what my fatal error was," Milkha Singh said. "After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250m and could not cover the lost ground after that, and that cost me the race."
And even after so many years, the moment still stings for the ‘Flying Sikh’, revealed his son, the Indian golfer Jeev Milkha Singh.
“He says that it was the biggest mistake of my life and that he cannot forgive himself,” Jeev Milkha Singh told the Olympics.com.
“It is the only thing that leaves a bad taste in his mouth because he believes it was poor race management from a top athlete who should have won the gold medal.”
A living legend
Milkha Singh may have finished fourth in that race, but he set a national record that day which stood for nearly 40 years.
While Rome 1960 also saw the Indian hockey team lose out on the gold for the first time ever, Milkha losing out on a medal was much more excruciating to bear and a hard pill to swallow.
Apart from the Olympics, Milkha has been a serial winner in other competitions, winning four Asiad golds and claiming India’s first-ever track and field Commonwealth Games gold, in the 400 metres race (440 yards at the time) at the 1958 edition.
The Commonwealth feat was a joyous occasion and to commemorate it, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared a public holiday the day after Milkha Singh won the gold medal.
Post his retirement, Milkha served the sporting fraternity in the capacity of Director of Sports for his home state of Punjab. He died in June 2021.
Almost six decades on from that eventful race in Rome, Milkha Singh continues to serve as a beacon of inspiration for budding athletes from the nation.