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Sorrow of Rome 1960: How a mere 0.1s denied Milkha Singh

An error in race-strategy apparently cost Milkha Singh a coveted Bronze Medal.

Sorrow of Rome 1960: How a mere 0.1s denied Milkha Singh
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Milkha Singh (far left) competing in the 400m final at the Rome 1960 Olympics. (File photo: Getty) 

By

Kamakshi Deshmukh

Updated: 17 Jun 2024 8:44 AM GMT

Five decades have passed, yet the memory of that fateful September 1960 afternoon in Rome remains in our minds. A race that unfolded in a brief moment, left an everlasting mark of disappointment, especially for Milkha Singh.

"Looking back," Milkha Singh remembered, "It feels like a cruel twist of fate. Here, I was, at the peak of my career, having conquered the Asian Games and dominating races across Europe, only to have the Olympic medal slip through my grasp by a whisker." The pain, he confessed, was far greater than the joy of his numerous victories.

The years of relentless training, the crushing pressure, the tears, and the lingering torment – all came flooding back.

Journey to becoming an Olympic hopeful

Milkha Singh's journey began on the dusty tracks of the Indian Army. Here, his raw talent for running was discovered during a mandatory cross-country race.

Unfamiliar with the world of professional athletics, he had something that could never be bought nor taught - "Aag thah andar (I had the fire inside)," he had once said to BBC.

Eventually, he learnt how to fuel that ‘fire’ with dedication and perseverance.

Although an early exit from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was a setback, it proved to be a turning point. A chance to meet the American 400-metre champion, Charles Jenkins, sparked another perspective.

Milkha mastered his training methods and incorporated intense hill sprints and starting techniques into his regime.

This dedication took him to the top of the Asian athletics scene, culminating in a shot from Olympic glory in Rome.

A Race of Missed Opportunity

The 1960 Rome Olympics loomed large for Milkha. He had prepared well for the games, winning about 25 to 30 races all over Europe. Experts regarded him as the favourite for gold.

He cruised through the heats and semifinals; his confidence rose with each win. However, fate had other plans.

The final was a nerve-wracking affair.

Drawn to an unfavourable lane, he took off to a flying start ahead of his rivals, but one tactical decision proved costly.

At around the 250-meter mark, fearing burnout, he opted to slow down - a decision that would haunt him forever. This momentary lapse allowed his rivals to close the gap.

South Africa's Malcolm Spence went past Milkha before the second turn. At the same time, Ottis Davis claimed the lead. Two lanes inside of him Carl Kaufmann also gained on the turn and emerged slightly ahead of Spence.

Kaufmann tried to outpace Davis but never succeeded. He eventually dived at the finish line from half a metre back but could not get better of Davis.

In the final stretch, Milkha gave his all to cover the initial lead of Spence but failed to regain the lost ground.

The finish line witnessed a photo finish, the tension grew in the air.

There was a roar in the stadium when the results were announced. The Olympic record was shattered, but Milkha's dream lay shattered alongside it.

Davis of the United States was declared the winner (45.07s) as Kaufmann (45.08s) had his head crossing the finish line first. Spence of South Africa won the bronze clocking 45.5s (45.60s).

A mere one-hundredth of a second separated him from the podium finish. Milkha finished the race in fourth place. His hand-timing of 45.6 was later converted to 45.73 seconds, the then-national record.

Despite clocking a faster time than the previous Olympic record, the medal slipped away from him.

It has been flagged as one of the most memorable races in the history of athletics as the difference between first and fourth place was only about 0.6 seconds.

Despite missing out on the Olympic medal, this was one of the most remarkable achievements of Milkha's career.

Milkha's national record stood for 38 years before Paramjit Singh surpassed the mark by running 45.70 seconds in 1998.

Milkha Singh’s lasting impact

However, Milkha Singh's story goes beyond the disappointment of Rome in 1960.

He became a symbol of hope and inspiration for a young nation, proving that dedication and perseverance could bridge the gap between raw talent and international recognition.

As the world gears up for the Paris Olympics, Milkha Singh's quote rings true, "Life is not decided by lines on a palm but by the power of the will, hard work, and discipline."

While the pain of Rome never truly left him, his story serves as a strong reminder that the journey itself, with its triumphs and setbacks, defines an athlete's spirit.

It is this undying spirit, the relentless pursuit of excellence which will undoubtedly fuel the Indian contingent as they prepare for the upcoming games in Paris.

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