Missing by a whisker

On the occasion of the Olympic games, Rediscovering India profiles three Indian athletes, who missed Olympic glory by a whisker.

  • Gurbachan Singh Randhawa
  • Milkha Singh
  • P T Usha

Gurbachan Singh Randhawa - 1964, Tokyo 110 m hurdles (fifth)
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa was perhaps the most versatile athlete India has ever produced, an all-rounder who was capable of excelling in a number of different track and field events. Randhawa tasted the winning habit early on and won a number of events at the school and college level. He was the star athlete of Punjab University, excelling in the hurdles, the high jump and many other events. But on the advice of a coach, he decided to concentrate on the decathlon. Randhawa achieved national success for the first time when he was 21. At the 1960 Delhi Nationals he broke Dr. CM Muthiah's decathlon national record with a tally of 5,793 points. He proved his remarkable versatility by also winning the high jump, javelin and 110 metres hurdles at the Nationals, breaking four national records over a span of two days.
At the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Randhawa proved himself to be the best in the continent in the tough ten-event decathlon. His tally of 6,739 points gave him the gold with silver medallist Shosuke Suzuki of Japan trailing by almost 550 points. Randhawa later set the National record of 6,912 points, a mark that would remain unbroken for 10 years. At Jakarta he proved his versatility by also reaching the finals of the 110 metres hurdles and the javelin, finishing fifth in both. A shoulder injury after Jakarta forced him to switch from the decathlon to concentrate on the hurdles. He gives credit to the Hungarian coach Jozef Kovacs, who was a visiting coach at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, for teaching him the art of warming-up.
Like Milkha Singh four years before, Randhawa too was given the opportunity of competing extensively in Europe before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and this helped him immensely when it came to the big occasion. At Tokyo, the hurdler was given the honor of being the standard-bearer for the Indian contingent. Randhawa remembers the race well. "Tokyo in October had a fair amount of rain. We were praying for good weather as the track was of cinder. But despite the heavy downpour, it remained firm."
The line-up for the 110 metres hurdles was an impressive one. A total of 37 competitors from 23 nations were trying for the eight places in the final to be run on October 18. But one of the front-runners, Willie Davenport who had won the US Olympics trial, was eliminated after suffering a leg injury in the semi-finals. He would win the gold in 1968. There were five heats to decide the finalists with the first three from each heat and the fastest loser qualifying for the semi-finals.

In his heat, Randhawa was in lane four, which was an advantage as he could keep an eye on his rivals on both sides. Recalls Randhawa: "Because of my lack of basic speed I was not good at starts. I took off rather slowly. But my initial hard training in so many different events had given me a lot of endurance and staying power. That came in handy. I covered a lot of ground between the fifth and eighth hurdles and almost caught up with American Hayes Jones and Frenchman Marcel Duriez. I finished fourth in 14.3 seconds. But my painful wait was over when it was announced that I had qualified for the semi-finals as the fastest loser."
In the semi-finals Randhawa was pitted against England's John Parker, Dureiz, Anatoly Mikhailov (USSR), Giorgio Mazza (Italy), Lazaro Betnacourt (Cuba), Davenport (US) and Valentine Chistyakov (USSR). He had clocked better timings than three of his rivals and was confident of making it to the final. Chistyakov jumped the gun twice and was disqualified. "It was a tough race," Randhawa recalls. "My joy knew no bounds when I looked at the giant scoreboard to see that I had finished second in a personal best timing of 14 seconds which was also a national record." The final was to be staged only 45 minutes later, just enough time for a massage and a quick nap.
The final had a line-up consisting of two Americans, one Soviet, a Frenchman, three Italians (they were battling with Americans for supremacy in the high hurdles) and the lone Indian. In the words of Randhawa: "Once off to the start, everything was forgotten. Again I had a slow start but I surged smoothly ahead of Duriez. Up front the Italians Mazza and Giovanni Cornacchia were struggling. Duriez tripped on the final hurdle and that gave me a slight advantage, allowing me to catch up with him at the tape."
Americans Hayes Jones and H. Blaine Lindgren had run evenly for almost the entire race. But Lindgren started his lean too early and was pipped at the tape. Jones won in a time of 13.6 seconds, below the world record of 13.2 held jointly by Martin Lauer and Lee Calhoun. Lindgren was second in 13.7. Mikhailov came third in 13.7, the same time clocked by the silver medallist. Italy's Eddy Ottoz, who was to claim the bronze four years later, took fourth place in 13.8.
As for Randhawa: "I had barely recovered from the effort when I saw the scoreboard. Lights lashed on it, but soon they were put off. When they came on again, my name was at the fourth spot. But they went off again. When the lights returned I was in the fifth spot. The timing was 14 seconds". Following Randhawa were Duriez (also 14 seconds), Cornacchia and Mazza (both 14.1), showing how close the finish was.
"I have no regrets", Randhawa says years later, looking back at Tokyo. "Maybe I should have broken the 14-second barrier. I have had my share of bad luck in life. But I must tell you that I was lucky at Tokyo to get into the semis as the fastest loser". Randhawa's is a sporting family. His father was a well-known athlete in Punjab while his son Ranjit followed his footsteps and also took to hurdling in the 90s.
Like Milkha Singh's records, Randhawa's too have stood the test of time. After 40 years the 14-second barrier is yet to be broken by any Indian hurdler. His national record in the decathlon was broken after 12 years and that too by one of his own pupils, Vijay Singh Chauhan. There is a general feeling that had the facilities in his days been better, Randhawa would have reached world heights in the decathlon. The following are the best marks which Randhawa set at the national level: Decathlon: 6,912 points; 110 metres hurdles: 14.0 seconds; long jump: 24 ft. 4 and a half inches; javelin: 210 feet; high jump: 6 ft. 7 in. Versatile indeed!
Milkha Singh - 1960, Rome 400 m (fourth)
Milkha Singh can be described as one of the most extraordinary athletes of our times. He was a genius. Without any formal training, without any financial reward and without any emotional support (he lost his parents during Partition and he had only an elder brother and a sister to look for help) Milkha Singh took on the greatest athletes of his time and proved himself as good if not better. The burst of speed with which he broke the previous Olympic Games record of 5.9 seconds in 400 meters is now a part of folk lore in Punjab. The tale is repeated as part of Punjab's rich heritage. Milkha is no less popular than Pele in Brazil and Maradona in Argentina. Generation after generation in India will remember fondly his exploits with which he set the tracks ablaze whenever and wherever he ran.

In the first heat in the Rome Olympics in 1960 Milkha Singh clocked 47.6 seconds to finish second. In the second heat Milkha cut off a few second to finish second to Karl Kaufman of Germany with a timing of 46.5 seconds. In the semifinal Milkha ran shoulder to shoulder with Ottis Davis of the USA to Finnish once again second but he further clipped a few more seconds from his early timing (45.9). In the finals Milkha Singh went off the blocks and took an early lead. Midway he slowed down a bit. This proved his undoing because other athletes went past him. Realizing his miscalculation, Mikha drew out every ounce of energy for the final burst but failed to retrieve lost ground. How fiercely was the race run by runners of such high order can be gauged from the fact that the winner Ottis Davis and Kaufman clocked 44.8 seconds to finish first and second in 400 meters while Mel Spence of South Africa timed 45.5 seconds to finish third. Milkha Singh who actually led the pack was untimely fourth, timing 45.6 seconds, a difference of just 0.1 second from the bronze. Thus upto the final he clocked 47.6, 46.5, 45.9 and 45.6 seconds, clocking a better timing in every race.

Talking about the race Milkha Singh explained that he found himself running at a reckless speed in the initial stages of the race. Thus he tried to slow down a bit and this proved to be a big error of judgment on his part. Pitted against athletes of such high class only a small error separates the winner from the loser.

It's years since Milkha has hung his spikes yet no athlete has neared his magical timing. He was a product of that time when no facilities existed, no coach available, no reward offered and no job secured, yet armed only with an iron will and the will to draw his own course, Milkha reversed the movement of the wheels of destiny.

Born at Layallpur, now in Pakistan, on October 8, 1935, Milkha Singh shot into limelight during the National Games at Patiala in 1956. Two years later he shattered the 200 and 400 meters record in the National games at Cuttack. The same year he established new records in the 200 and 400 meters in the Asian games at Tokyo. He followed it up with a gold in the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in 1958. He gained the epithet "Flying Sikh" while participating in the Indo-Pak meet at Lahore when he outran Asia's most celebrated athlete in the 200 meters, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan. It was said that Milkha did not run the race but he flew. 

Milkha Singh is, at present, Additional Director of Sports and Youth Program, Education Department. Married to former international player, Nirmal, he has one son and three daughters. His son, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, is a top golfer and represented India in the Beijing Asian Games in 1990.

Milkha Singh was awarded the prestigious 'Padam Shri' by the President of India in 1958 when he won the gold medal in the British and Commonwealth Games till now. All medals and trophies won by Milkha Singh, including the running shoes with which he broke the world record, blazers and uniforms have been donated by him to the National Sports Museum at the Jawajarlal Nehu Stadium, New Delhi.
P T Usha 1984 - Los Angeles 400 m hurdles (fourth)
The queen of Indian track and field for two decades, P.T. Usha has been associated with Indian athletics since 1979. The initials stand for Payyoli Tevaraparampil, her family names according to the traditional naming system in many parts of South India. She was born in 1964 in the Kerala village of Meladi-Payyoli near Calicut, afflicted by ill health and poverty. In 1976 the Kerala State Government started a Sports School for women, and Usha was chosen to represent her district, at a cost of Rs. 250 per month paid by the state. In 1979 she participated in the National School Games, where she was noticed by O. M. Nambiar, who coached her through most of the rest of her career. India Today describes the athletic situation in 1979 as a time when 'athletics was very much a male sport and track-suited women a rarity'. 

Her first international performance came in the 1982 Asian Games. By 1986, the Los Angeles Olympics, she had improved tremendously; she won the 400 m heats, and missed getting India's first track-and-field bronze medal in the 400m finals by 1/100 sec, in a dramatic photo finish. She had set an Asian best, 55.42 seconds, for the event, which still stands today. Of her miss, she said, "I am very happy to have set an Asian best (55.42) for the event." Her greatness lay in her ability to cover up any sense of failure.

1986 and the Seoul Asian Games: Usha won golds in the 200 m, 400 m, 400 m hurdles and 4x400m relay. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 proved a disappointment, however, with Usha unable to make the finals in her best events. This provoked much finger-pointing and breast-beating in the Indian sports community, with much of the blame being directed towards P.T. Usha to her dismay. However, she was determined not to be discouraged, and won four golds and two silvers at the Asian Track Federation meet in Delhi, 1989. 

Having proved her mettle, she decided to retire from athletics, but was lured back to participate in the Beijing Asian Games, where she won a silver medal (a poor haul by the standards her fans had come to expect) in spite of her limited preparation. 

In 1991, she married V. Srinivasan, and their son Ujjwal was born the following year. Although she enjoyed domesticity and motherhood, she was drawn back to athletics, and astonished the country by winning bronze medals in the 200 m and 400 m at the Asian Track Federation meet in Japan, 1999. And, silencing her critics, at the age of 34 she set a new national record for the 200m, improving on her own previous record. 

P.T. Usha was named sportsperson of the century by the Indian Olympic Association, and is still the Indian with most international track and field medals. She was awarded the Arjuna Award in 1983, and the Padma Shree in 1985. You can walk on P.T. Usha Road in Cochin. Her autobiography, Golden Girl, was published by Penguin in 1987.