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
|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 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
|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|
Watch the race clipping on the Olympic Channel here.