How a fraction of a second left Milkha Singh stranded on the cusp of glory

India nearly won a medal in athletics at Rome 1960 - but ultimately missed out.

Track and field has never been India’s forte at the Olympic Games.

Over the years while the likes of Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, Dafne Schippers, and Haile Gebrselassie have lit up Olympic arenas with mind-boggling performances, for Indians seeing one of their own rubbing shoulders with the greats has been an achievement on its own - that’s how rare it can be.

That said, over the years, there have been a few athletes who have bucked this trend to go toe-to-toe with the best in the business and come mighty close to creating history.

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 in Tokyo.

He might have dominated the continental stage - his back-to-back gold medals at the Asiad in 1958 and 1962 a testament to this - but one race that Milkha fondly remembers is the one where he turned out to be a gallant loser, finishing fourth at the 1960 Summer Games.

The Roman dream

Participating in the 400m race, Milkha got through the heats with relative ease. The quarterfinals 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 and lane five at this mercy, 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 and looked certain for a medal. But an error in judgement saw him slow down before the final turn, giving South Africa’s Malcolm Spence enough room to close down on the Indian.

The move proved too costly for Milkha, as Spence edged ahead to take the bronze in 45.5 seconds while the Indian fell mighty close, finishing his run 0.1 seconds slower, leaving him wondering about the ‘what-ifs’.

I knew what my fatal error was. 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.

Milkha Singh (far left), in an image from the Rome 1960 400 metres photo finish
Milkha Singh (far left), in an image from the Rome 1960 400 metres photo finishMilkha Singh (far left), in an image from the Rome 1960 400 metres photo finish

A living legend

Milkha 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 golds at the Asian Games as well as claiming India’s first-ever Commonwealth Games gold medal in track and field.

Post his retirement, Milkha continued to serve the sporting fraternity, this time in the capacity of Director of Sports for his home state of Punjab.

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.

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