One of the towering figures of Indian athletics had been Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, who was the first Indian to win the Arjuna Award in Athletics that was introduced by the government of India in 1961.
Born in Nangli, a small village in Punjab in 1939, Randhawa didn’t have any association with athletics till the age of 12. As a kid, he was more invested in playing football and volleyball, which he took up from his father. Something special happened one particular day, which completely changed his journey. One day, when he was heading for a drink of water after playing in school, he came across a badminton net in his path. Singh, instead of going under the net, jumped over it. One of his physical trainers saw this stunt and called him over. Randhawa, who thought, he would be punished for the act was asked to jump over the net again. Without knowing anything, Randhawa jumped over the net, which has standing at a height of five feet. He did it again, seamlessly. The trainer so impressed, the made Singh took up athletics and thus began his journey.
In high school, Randhawa went on winning medals in athletics and before he could even join college, he bettered the All India University record in the high jump in 1957. At 18, he crossed the 6000 mark barrier in the decathlon and very soon, he crossed the 6500 mark. At 21, he won the national title in the 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.
All these feats at this early age resulted in him being bestowed by the Arjuna Award, introduced in 1961. He didn’t even know what the Arjuna Award was when his name appeared on newspapers. He qualified in the 1960 Olympics for the decathlon event. Though he managed only a lacklustre performance at the Olympics, he went on to set new milestones at the National Games.
Just in a span of two days, Randhawa set four national records in 1962. He was the only male athlete from India to set four national records in decathlon. PT Usha also attained the feat. In 1962, Randhawa participated in the Jakarta Asian Games where he won the gold medal in decathlon and alongside was adjudged the best Asian athlete. However, his success in decathlon came to a halt as he had to leave it owing to a shoulder and elbow injury. He then solely invested in his efforts in hurdles. The lack of specialists and physiotherapists in India that time caused a permanent snuggling pain on his shoulder and elbow. In 1964, he participated in the Tokyo Olympics in the hurdle event. Randhawa clocked 14.3 seconds in his heat to qualify for the semi-finals, where his friend from across the border, Pakistan’s Ghulam Raziq was eliminated.
The next day, ahead of the semi-finals, the rain came down in Tokyo which made conditions even more difficult, and dropped the temperature to 14ºC. Despite such conditions, Randhawa ended up being second in the semis after clocking 14.04 seconds. The final was scheduled after an hour. Though Randhawa clocked another 14 in the final, he could only finish fifth and lose his medal chances by a small margin. It was nother heartbreaking moment for Indian sports as four years ago, Milkha Singh had missed the medal. Randhawa bid adieu to his athletics career after the 1966 Commonwealth Games. He, however, took up the role of coaching. In 1982, all his athletes were finalists at the Asian Games in Delhi. In 1984 he joined the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) which marked the end of his sporting career. In 2005, Randhawa was conferred with the Padmasree award. His missed medal at the Olympics is still a dream that Indian athletes are trying to recover.