Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, born in a small Punjab village called Nangli in 1939, had never walked on an athletics track till he was about 12 years old. Like his father, he used to play football and volleyball as a child. Then, one day, as he was heading for a drink of water after playing, his life changed.
As he was walking, he came across a badminton net in his path. “Instead of going under the net, I jumped over it,” he said. One of his school’s physical trainers saw this stunt and summoned him over. “I thought I was going to get punished and braced myself for a beating.”
Instead, the coach asked him to jump over the net again. “He told me I had jumped over a five-foot net,” Randhawa said. “I did not know what the height was. I just jumped over it without thinking.” He obeyed his teacher and jumped over the net again. Like that, a fruitful career in track and field was born.
By the time Randhawa entered high school, he had started winning medals in athletics. By the time he was in college, he bettered the All India University record in high jump in 1957. As he grew up, he became more versatile. At the age of 21, he won the national title in decathlon, which includes 10 events – 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 metres, 110-metre hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, and javelin throw.
This was his first appearance at the Nationals and Randhawa even went on to better the national record in high jump set by CM Muthiah. Randhawa’s exploits resulted in him being one of the first sportpersons to be bestowed with the Arjuna Award, which was introduced in 1961. “When I got to know through the newspaper that my name has been recommended, I didn’t know what the Arjuna Award was,” said Randhawa.
“I was just happy to be invited to the president’s house. I met the president, received the award and came back. There was no cash prize or incentives that came with it, so it wasn’t so important. People also did not know what is the Arjuna Award,” he added.
Randhawa’s exploits even allowed him to qualify for the 1960 Olympics in decathlon. While the 21-year-old could not make an impression at his first Olympics, he continued to set the stage alight at the national level.
In 1962, he set four national records within the space of two days – in javelin throw, 110-metre hurdles, high jump and decathlon. “I am the only man to hold four national records,” Randhawa said proudly. “PT Usha has also done the same. All my records were made while participating in decathlon.”
Randhawa’s next international event was the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. Not only did he win the gold in decathlon but he was also declared the best Asian athlete. Asked how the news was received in India, he said, “I was happy I got a telegram from the president of India, as well as from my father. That was enough for me. We didn’t know whether the news was on the radio or not. There was, of course no television, but it was covered in newspapers.”
Unfortunately for Randhawa, he had to give up on decathlon after the 1962 Asian Games because of a troublesome shoulder and elbow, which got worn out while throwing javelins. “I couldn’t throw any more so I was left with no choice but to focus on hurdles only,” he said.
“We did not have doctors and physiotherapists at the time. Till today I cannot throw a javelin, as my shoulder and elbow still hurts.” Asked if he considered getting a surgery, he said, “I did not think it was necessary. I was good at the 110-metre hurdles so I focussed on that,” he added.
In 1964 came Randhawa’s biggest test after his switch to hurdles – the Tokyo Olympics. If Randhawa wasn’t nervous, his “good friend” from across the border tried his best to make sure he was. “Before the heats, Asian champion Ghulam Raziq from Pakistan – who had gone to the 1956 and 1960 Olympics before that – came up to me and laughed, saying, ‘You are going to come last. Why are you wasting your time?’ I just said, ‘Let’s see.’”
Rain, hail or sunshine
As it turned out, Randhawa clocked 14.3 seconds in his heat to qualify for the semi-finals, while Raziq was eliminated. The next day, ahead of the semi-finals, the rain came down in Tokyo on the cinder track, which made conditions even more difficult, even as the temperature dropped to 14ºC.
However, it did not matter to Randhawa, as he ended up second in the semis after clocking 14.04 seconds.“Raziq came up to me – he was very happy – and said, ‘Now try to get on the podium. You are capable of getting a medal in the Olympics’.”
The final was scheduled an hour after the semis, during which the temperature went down further to almost 13ºC, while the rain got heavier. “I didn’t care whether it was raining or not, whether it is hot or cold,” said Randhawa. “If you are confident, you don’t crib about the weather. You give your best performance regardless, that’s my personal opinion.”
Randhawa ended up clocking a 14-second race again (14.09) but it was only enough to come fifth in the Olympics. He could not win a medal, but he – and India – was still very proud of his performance.
Randhawa’s last international competition was the 1966 Commonwealth Games, after which he took up coaching for a few years. “In 1982, all my athletes were finalists at the Asian Games in Delhi,” he said, proudly. “In 1984 I joined the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and never looked back at sports again.”
Advice for today’s athletes
Fifty four years after Randhawa’s achievement at the 1964 Olympics, India are yet to win a medal in athletics at the Games. However, the 79-year-old feels it’s a matter of time before someone gets there.
“The kids are doing very well today,” he said. “The javelin throw lad [Neeraj Chopra] is doing extremely well. The girl, Hima [Das], I am very happy and proud of her. She is very capable, and I personally feel she will be the first person to break the barrier of 50 seconds in 400 metres.”
He added, “The women’s 4x400-metre relay team has a chance but only if they train together. They probably won’t win a medal but they can reach the Olympic final in Tokyo. But if they continue training at different places, there is no chance.”
Randhawa has one piece of advice for today’s generation of athletes, and that is to not run behind the government demanding honours and awards, but rather focus on their game and winning medals. “Nowadays, a lot of deals are made between athletes, the federation and the government for awards. This is not right. Awards should not be the focus of athletes,” he said.
If you keep performing and be honest, everything else falls into place, he added. Just like it did for him after jumping over a badminton net.
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