Olympic misses: Milkha Singh to PT Usha, India's historic near-wins at the Games
A moment of self-doubt was possibly at the root of Indian athletes like Milkha Singh and PT Usha missing out on Olympic medals
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on India's historic moments at previous editions of the Olympics.
That one moment of inspiration, or that instant of self-doubt, can make or break an Olympian!
At Tokyo, in 1964, Lynn Davies of Britain was trailing reigning champ Ralph Boston (USA) and Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in the finals of the long jump. There was a strong headwind blowing which was hampering performances. Then, Davies noticed that the flag atop the stadium had suddenly flopped; it had stopped blowing momentarily. He took a deep breath, ran up beautifully and took a leap, 8.07-metre long, to win the gold medal.
At Helsinki, in 1952, Emil Zatopek took part in the marathon after winning the 5000-
metre and 10000-metre golds. Running that distance for the first time, he stuck close to the fancied Briton, Jim Peters. As they approached the final few kilometers, Zatopek said to Peters, “I’ve never run a marathon before. Shouldn’t we run a bit faster?” As Zatopek ran away to win gold, a disappointed Peters dropped out.
It was perhaps a similar moment of self-doubt that prevented India’s greatest athlete, till date, from winning an Olympic medal.
Milkha Singh, the ‘Flying Sikh’, was one of the best 400-metre runners in the world in 1960. At the Melbourne Games, in 1956, he had failed to go beyond heat number one in the 200 metres. Overawed and thoroughly disappointed, he had broken down. He had been, however, impressed with the relaxed running styles of Bobby Morrow — who won a sprint double besides taking a 4x100-metre gold — and Charles Jenkins Sr, who had won the 400-metre and the 4x400-metre golds. The latter had given the young Sikh a pep talk and told him how to train to be a world champion.
Four years of blood, sweat and tears and Milkha Singh breezed through the heats and qualified for the finals of the 400 metres at Rome. He had seen his family massacred during the Partition. He had lived in a refugee camp and even contemplated becoming a dacoit, before better sense prevailed and he joined the army. Hardened and matured by circumstances, the most important moment in his career was at hand.
On Tuesday, 6 September 1960, when Milkha entered the stadium for the finals, he admits to have felt a bit jittery on seeing the lineup. He took off well, perhaps a shade slower than the South African Malcolm Spence. Super striding saw him in front midway through the race. And then, he made the fatal error of looking over his shoulder, perhaps looking for the in-form American, Otis Davis. In a blur, as they homed in for the finish, first Davis and then Karl Kaufmann of Germany passed him and took the gold and silver in a photo finish. In the process, they set a new world record. Bewildered, perhaps, by the turn of events, Milkha Singh allowed Spence to take the bronze.
Milkha Singh still feels shattered, 56 years later. He must have rerun that race a million times over in his mind since that wretched day in Rome. But the memory of Davis, Kaufmann and Spence overtaking him will always haunt him!
Twenty four years later, the ‘Payyoli Express’, as she is popularly known, ran the newly introduced 400-metre hurdles at the Los Angeles Games of 1984. Running superbly in the heats and the semifinals, the 20-year-old was on course for a medal — if not gold — when she lined up at the Coliseum for the finals on 8 August 1984.
As the tension built up, with the legendary hurdler Ed Moses biting his nails in the crowd, Usha felt light and supple. She took off like a bullet at the gun but horror of horrors, it was declared a false start. Disappointed, her restart was a sluggish one. She made up mid-way, though, as the others were tiring. Moutawakel of Morocco and Judi Brown of USA were too far ahead though for her to catch up. She breasted the tape with Cristieana Cocojaru of Romania but missed out on a bronze medal by one hundredth of a second.
It was again a momentary lapse of concentration. PT Usha hadn’t been able to get over her brilliant take off that had been nullified. That affected her restart and her chances of winning a medal went awry!
Long jumper Anju Bobby George, recently upgraded to gold in the 2005 World Championships, was one of the favourites at the 2004 Games in Athens. In the finals, she recorded her best ever jump, at 6.83 metres, on first attempt. Two Russians had crossed the 7-metre mark in their first attempt, and the eventual winner, Tatyana Lebedeva also leapt beyond the 7-metre mark in her second attempt. The 7-metre barrier perhaps worked on Anju Bobby George’s mind as she finished in a disappointing fifth place.
Even India’s first ever medalist at the Olympic Games, in 1900, Norman Pritchard had managed to win two silver medals in the 200-metre sprint and 200-metre hurdles. He later became renowned as Norman Trevor who acted in Hollywood movies like Beau Geste, Dancing Mothers etc. In 1924, Sydney Jacob entered the quarterfinals of the tennis singles, losing to Jean Borotra in four sets.
In 1952, wrestler Khashaba Jadhav won five rounds and then had a tough bout with Japan’s Shonachi Ishi, which he won. In less than half an hour, he had to fight his final bout, but he was too exhausted, physically and mentally, and therefore had to settle for bronze.
Since Atlanta ’96 there has been a steady stream of silvers and bronzes coming India’s way: RS Rathore in shooting, Leander Paes in tennis, Malleswari in weightlifting, Vijendra Singh in boxing and Sushil Kumar in wrestling.
At the London Games, in 2012, Vijay Kumar and Sushil Kumar won silver medals in shooting and wrestling respectively. Saina Nehwal, Gagan Narang, Mary Kom and Yogeshwar Dutt chipped in with bronzes.
The Olympic gold medal had eluded Indian athletes for over a hundred years, until rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra struck form at the Beijing Games.
Bindra had finished a disappointing seventh in 2004 at Athens. Preparing single-mindedly for the Beijing Games, he was trained by Gaby Buhlmann, five-time Olympian. In order to get rid of his fear that could hamper him in the final, he even climbed a ‘pizza pole’ in Germany before flying down to Beijing.
At Beijing, in one of the warm up rounds he shot a 4, which was pretty poor by any standards. His mind went back immediately to his appalling performance at Athens, which had lost him a medal standing. But he had learnt to detach himself from the result in the four-year interval between the Games. He therefore drew a deep breath, relaxed and enjoyed the final 10 shots at Beijing, not bothering to find out how he was faring.
There was no looking over the shoulder or self-doubts. When he finished, he didn’t even know he had won a gold medal. It was when his coach Buhlmann wrapped her arms around him and congratulated him that he knew he had created history.
A more confident Indian contingent now bids fair to pick a few more medals — a couple of golds perhaps — at the Rio Games. We wish them Godspeed!
Austin Coutinho is a caricaturist, cricket and mental toughness coach, and the co-author of 'Devil's Pack' along with Balvinder Sandhu
Former Indian women volleyball team captain Nirmal Kaur, who is the wife of sprint legend Milkha Singh, passed away at a Mohali hospital after a three-week fight with COVID-19.
Milkha Singh showing 'continuous improvement' in fight against COVID-19, wife battling it 'bravely', say hospital spokespersons
Milkha Singh is being closely monitored by a medical team at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER).
The statement also informed that Milkha, 91, was being closely monitored by a team of three doctors.