Olympics | Milkha Singh and PT Usha: Immortal misses

We did not build on the early inspiration to build a medal winning athletic team; India had to wait till the Tokyo Olympics to win a track and field medal

Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh (in picture) and PT Usha were truly Indian heroes but the country did not build on their initial success in the global athletic field. File photo

For 50 years Milkha Singh was a sporting hero in India which is always in search of heroes to deify. It did not matter to us that he lost the 400 metres race in the Rome Olympics by a whisker despite breaking the Olympic record and finishing at 45.6 seconds. What mattered was that India needed a hero, and for half a century after that Milkha Singh was paraded everywhere as a Sikh hero and an Indian hero.

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As if to celebrate the role that he played for the country, a biopic ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ was produced to national acclaim 50 years after the Olympics. It was a romanticised version of his life but what mattered was that he got the final confirmation of Indian canonisation: a Bollywood biopic. No one really bothered that he was being adored as a hero here despite losing but for India, it was a victory and a medal. We as a country are very good at appropriating victory where there is none.

Milkha Singh's big statement

But Milkha Singh deserved all that. He was the first person who made that big statement: Indians can also produce world champions. He dared to dream big. Milkha entered the Indian athletic scene in 1956 as a ferocious runner; two years later he broke the 200 and 400 meters record in the national games in Cuttack.

In 1960 in Rome, Milkha Singh was the hot favourite considering his timing. According to “Olympics: The Indian Story” by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, what was expected to go in his favour in Rome was the tremendous heat which Milkha Singh was confident was sure to bother the others in the fray. Vincent Reel the American assistant coach of the Indian team was confident that Milkha could even win a gold.

But a million dreams were dashed in that fast one-lapper when all top four broke the Olympic run.

How he ran

The Hindu reported: “Milkha drew his best lane and everything was in his favour to produce this best. The finalists took an excellent start and it was Milkha Singh and Kinder who led first. Nearing the finish Davis overtook all with Kauffman close on his heels. Milkha Singh was then lying fourth behind Spenc. Between Milkha Singh and Spence was hardly a foot difference and had Milkha Singh run a well-judged race instead of bursting out from the start he might have clinched the bronze medal.”

Otis Davis of the US broke the world record in 44.9 seconds, West Germany’s Carl Kaufmann also finished at 44.9 seconds but was marked second, Malcolm Spence of South Africa recorded 45.5 seconds and Milkha Singh timed 45.6 seconds.

Heartbreak for PT Usha

It was a scorching race. Incidentally, India’s top 400-metre runner, Amoj Jacob, who anchors the 1,600-metre relay squad that has qualified for Paris, runs the distance at 44.60 seconds.

PT Usha faced the same heartbreak and finished fourth in the 400-metre hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics: Usha had just switched to the hurdles after being a sprinter blazing the tracks in all Asian events. Usha came as close as one-hundredth of a second to breaking India’s medal drought in the Olympic Games.

Indian heroes

The finish had to be replayed again and again on the giant screen at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the results were declared. For the third place, Usha was beaten by a last desperate lunge by Romania Cristina Cojecaru who was credited with a timing of 55.42 seconds.

Usha's timing was officially also shown as 55.42 seconds.

Usha too like Milkha Singh was canonised as a national hero and the country carried them on its giant shoulders for many years. Usha gave gender power the much-needed fillip; apart from the freedom fighters, India had to wait for Usha to find a truly national hero. She played that role to the hilt and is now the president of the Indian Olympic Association.

India’s failure

The question that haunts us is that we did not build on the early inspiration that these stars provided to build a medal-winning athletic team. India had to wait till the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 to win a track and field medal.

The gold medal that Neeraj Chopra won came with a bang. It was as unexpected as the Milkha Singh flop. But for a nation, it was beautiful redemption. Sixty years of disappointment had finally been wiped out. But the country will never forget Usha and Milkha.
Coming next week in The Federal's special series on Paris Olympics - Paavo Nurmi and Emile Zatopek: The runners who changed Olympics
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