It is defeat that lives on and takes the years to smother.
For Milkha Singh the agony of defeat at Rome Olympics in 1960 has been his worst memory next only to the death of his parents. Arguably, India`s greatest male athlete, Milkha Singh who got the sobriquet of `The Flying Sikh` from Pakistan General Ayub Khan, won 77 of his 80 races but missed out on an Olympic medal just by a whisker. Even though Milkha finished fourth in 400 meters with a timing of 45.6 seconds-an Olympic record- it wasn`t enough for a medal as the top three too had broken the existing records in the process.
Prior to the start of the event, Milkha was the favourite to clinch the gold medal and in the finals he was among the leaders right after the start. He had trained hard and was in the best shape of his life. However, a costly mistake when he slowed down in the final 250 meters, proved to be the fractional difference between him and the eventual bronze medallist. Such was his mental state that he cried for days after the agonising defeat. Even today he hasn`t been able to wipe out the bitter memory of the Rome Olympics.
Experience tells you what to do; confidence allows you to do it.
- Stan Smith
At 20-years of age, PT Usha was brimming with confidence when she took the field at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She had put up some impressive performances during the qualifying stages of the 400m hurdles finals and had the third best timing among the finalists. The dream of becoming the first ever athlete from India to win an Olympic medal was for her to realise and just a race separated her from the ultimate glory. What transpired in the finals became one of the biggest heartbreaking stories for the Indian sports fans for years to come. The `Golden Girl` of Indian athletics missed a top three finish just by one hundredth of a second. Romania`s Cristina Cojecaru lunged forward in the dying moments of the race to clinch the bronze medal and her timing was 55.41 seconds. A photo-finish led the decision to be delayed for the footage was repeatedly being viewed, not leave anything to chance. PT Usha`s timing was officially recorded as 55.42 seconds, a fractional difference from the eventual winner that was a result of her inexperience. Nevertheless, her performance was creditable enough to win her many an admirers world over considering the fact that prior to the event, she had only competed in two major hurdles races after taking up the event six months back.
Others who nearly made it
For India, the heartbreaking stories of how Milkha Singh and PT Usha came so close to create history rankles even today for there are far few stories of glory and triumph for them to think of at the biggest sporting carnival. However, barring these two there were other athletes too whose names have been lost in the annals of history but omitting them from this list would be an injustice to their talent and grit. It was their sheer determination that drove them to success and brought them to the brink of rewriting history books.
When 19-years-old triple jumper Henry Rebello from Bangalore tore his hamstring while approaching the take-off for his first attempt, his dreams were shattered and laid to rest, forever. In their book Olympics: The India Story, Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, have described this occurrence as one of the worst tragedies of India`s athletic history. Rebello was the favourite among the experts to land a gold medal in the London Games of 1948. He qualified for the finals with a jump of 49 feet. However, tragedy struck the young Indian in the finals as he injured his hamstring and had to be carried off in a stretcher. After that, Rebello lost motivation and interest in training and retired from athletics to pursue higher studies.
Sudesh Kumar and Prem Nath
Few can remember and even fewer can recognise these two names. Both were Indian wrestlers and had brought many laurels to the country with their performances in the international arena. Both Kumar and Nath came tantalisingly close to clinching an Olympic medal in 1972 Munich Games. Kumar participated in the 52 kg while Nath competed in 57 kg category. After defeating Henrik Gal of Hungary, he was against Kiyomi Kato of Japan and a win in this bout would have made him a gold medal contender. As described in the book Olympics: The India Story, when needed the most, Kumar`s fate betrayed him as a `string of referring decisions went against him` dictating the course of the match. He finished fourth.
On the other hand, Prem Nath, aged 17, was participating in his first Olympics competition and lost his Round Five match against Richard Sandero of USA that put him out of contention for gold or silver. He got injured in the semi-final match and eventually finished fourth.
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa and Sriram Singh
Gurbachan Singh was 110-metre hurdler from Punjab who excelled in decathlon event before switching to hurdles due to an injury. He was the flag-bearer of Indian contingent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He made it to the semi-finals of the 110-metre hurdles as the fastest loser and qualified for the finals with a personal best of 14 seconds which was also the national record. A close contest in the finals saw him finishing fifth with a timing of 14 seconds.
Sriram Singh was the Asian Games champion in the middle distance running event (800 meters) when he took the field in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Regarded as one of the top 800 meters runners in the world, he was a sure medal contender and had set the field ablaze with his performances in the practice meet and the heats. However, in the final, even after leading the field for the first half of the distance, he gave way in the final stretch allowing Cuban Alberto Juantorena to clinch the gold. He finished seventh with a timing of 1:45.77. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic performance from him, and fittingly he was declared the best Asian athlete of that time.