Milkha Singh was simply ‘distraught’ at the finish of the race, which had been the race of his life.
The 91-year-old ‘Flying Sikh’, who passed away on Friday in Chandigarh after suffering COVID-related problems, was anticipated to soar to the highest altitude at the 1960 Rome Olympics but fell short by 0.1 seconds, an indelible heartbreak he carried for the rest of his life.
Hurdler Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, Milkha’s teammate at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games and one of the few remaining athletes to have experienced the historic 400m race in person, recalls the build-up in the Italian capital vividly.
“I was very much there, the entire Indian contingent was there in anticipation of history being created. Everybody was expecting a medal from him. Everybody was waiting (for the race) with bated breath,” the 82-year-old recalled in a conversation with PTI.
“He was in top form, his timing was among the best in the world at that time. Gold or silver was difficult for him but everybody was sure that he would at least win a bronze. He was capable of that,” he added.
Milkha, however, almost missed out on bronze, clocking 45.6 seconds, 0.1 seconds faster than third-place runner Malcolm Spence of South Africa, whom he had beaten to earn gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games.
“The whole Indian contingent was stunned, speechless. Milkha Singh was distraught,” Randhawa said.
Milkha had competed in several of Europe’s finest races before the Rome Olympics, defeating all of the top runners of the time, except American Otis Davis, the eventual gold medalist at the Rome Games.
Davis and the silver medalist in a photo finish, Carl Kaufmann of Germany and Spence were given the identical time of 44.9 seconds, while Spence recorded 45.5 seconds.
Only Davis is still living today. Kaufmann died in 2008, while Spence died in 2010.
Milkha was plagued by the miss, one of just two events in his life that he termed as ‘unforgettable’ – the other being the assassination of his parents in front of him during division in Pakistan.
Milkha was a tough disciplinarian, and his nearly ten years in the Indian Army contributed significantly to his becoming a fitness-obsessed athlete.
Milkha is unparalleled, according to Randhawa, a track star who finished fifth in the 1964 Olympics 100m hurdles.
Randhawa stated, “There is no comparison with him.”