For decades, India has been used to heartbreaks at the Olympic Games. And among those, essays could be written just about the country’s famous fourth-placed finishes that were inspiring and agonising in equal measures. PT Usha’s in 1984. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi’s in 2004. Dipa Karmakar and Abhinav Bindra’s in 2016.

And perhaps the most iconic of them all: when the world witnessed a remarkable 400m men’s final at the 1960 Rome Olympics that saw Milkha Singh finish a whisker behind the bronze medal position.

The legendary athlete is a four-time Asian Games gold medallist and the 1958 Commonwealth Games champion, but his greatest performance was the fourth-place finish in Rome.

For world athletics, the men’s 400m event at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games was extraordinary because USA’s Otis Davis and Germany’s Carl Kaufmann set a new world record in a photo-finish. Imagine that, not one but two racers giving the best the world has seen on the same day. The two men were hand-timed at 44.9 secs to smash the then four-year-old world record of 45.2 second. The auto-timing then showed that Davis had won 45.07 to 45.08.

But a few yards behind, there was another close finish.

Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, had started the race in fantastic fashion. He was the reigning Commonwealth Games champion in the 440-yards. He was clocking superb timings in the lead up to the event. And he looked good for a medal half way throught.

But the trailblazing Indian missed out on a bronze medal. Participating in the 400 metres final and touted as a medal contender, Singh paid the price for a slight misjudgement to be pushed to fourth at the finish by South Africa’s Malcolm Spence, by mere 1/10th of a second. Officially, Singh was 0.13 seconds behind bronze medallist Spence and 0.67 seconds behind US winner Davis.

Men's outdoor 400m world record progression

Mark Competitor DOB Country Venue Date
43.03 Wayde VAN NIEKERK 15 JUL 1992 RSA Estádio Olímpico, Rio de Janeiro (BRA) 14 AUG 2016
43.18 Michael JOHNSON 13 SEP 1967 USA La Cartuja, Sevilla (ESP) 26 AUG 1999
43.29 Butch REYNOLDS 08 JUN 1964 USA Letzigrund, Zürich (SUI) 17 AUG 1988
43.86 Lee EVANS 25 FEB 1947 USA Estadio Olímpico, Ciudad de México (MEX) 18 OCT 1968
44.1h Larry JAMES 06 NOV 1947 USA Echo Summit (USA) 14 SEP 1968
44.5h Tommie SMITH 06 JUN 1944 USA San José (USA) 20 MAY 1967
44.9h Mike LARRABEE 02 DEC 1933 USA Los Angeles, CA (USA) 12 SEP 1964
44.9h y Adolph PLUMMER 03 JAN 1938 USA Tempe, AZ (USA) 25 MAY 1963
44.9h Carl KAUFMANN 25 MAR 1936 FRG Stadio Olimpico, Roma (ITA) 06 SEP 1960
44.9h Otis DAVIS 12 JUL 1932 USA Stadio Olimpico, Roma (ITA) 06 SEP 1960
45.2h Lou JONES 15 JAN 1932 USA Los Angeles, CA (USA) 30 JUN 1956
45.4h Lou JONES 15 JAN 1932 USA Ciudad de México (MEX) 18 MAR 1955
45.8h George RHODEN 13 DEC 1926 JAM Eskilstuna (SWE) 22 AUG 1950
Since 1950 (Courtesy: World Athletics) (h: hand-timed, y: youth)

“Since it was a photofinish, the announcements were held up,” Singh told Rediff in a 2000 interview. “The suspense was excruciating. I knew what my fatal error was: After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250 metres. I could not cover the lost ground after that – and that cost me the race. After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory. I kept crying for days.”

According to World Athletics, Singh had set the then national record of 45.6 seconds which was hand-timed, but the race was also timed by a completely automatic electric system and was subsequently established by this system to be 45.73. And that mark stood for nearly four decades, to be broken in 1998.

“Milkha’s story of a bronze missed in Rome 1960, is the most irresistible [among India’s Olympic Games stories], the one we return to constantly. Perhaps because heartbreak, as a story, is often more powerful, and poignant, than triumph,” sports writer Rohit Brijnath wrote for BBC News in 2008.

Milkha Singh's Personal Bests

Discipline Performance Wind Venue Date Records Results Score
200 Metres 20.7h * Lahore (PAK) 31 JAN 1960 1076
400 Metres 45.6h * Stadio Olimpico, Roma (ITA) 06 SEP 1960 1129
4x400 Metres Relay 3:08.8h * National Stadium, Tokyo (JPN) 20 OCT 1964 1059
Courtesy: World Athletics (h: hand-timed)

In interviews since, Milkha Singh never hid his desire to see an Indian track and field athlete go where he couldn’t at the Olympic Games. It has remained a dream so far.

Play

Watch the race clipping on the Olympic Channel here.

Pause, rewind, play: When Milkha Singh created history and clinched India’s first Commonwealth gold

‘Milkha Singh was a colossus’: Reactions from sports fraternity as athletics legend dies at 91