Remembering Milkha Singh: Reliving the Flying Sikh’s historic 1960 Rome Olympics run when he fell short of Olympic glory by a whisker

Milkha Singh fell agonizingly short of a podium finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics due to a misjudgement mid-race.

Milkha Singh at Rome Olympics
Milkha Singh (far left) in the final of the 400m event at Rome Olympics

Marking one of the darkest days in Indian sports, 1958 Commonwealth Games gold medalist and independent India’s first sporting icon Milkha Singh took his last breath at PGIMER, Chandigarh on June 18. Aged 91, Singh had contracted the COVID-19 virus a month ago and was admitted to a private hospital in Mohali on May 24. But after a month-long battle with COVID, Singh took his last breath just five days after his wife Nirmal Saini passed away.

In a country that has forever suffered from a lack of quality track and field athletes, Milkha Singh was an inspiration for generations. Milkha announced himself on the international stage with a gold medal at the 1958 Asian Games and since then, never looked back. The ace sprinter dominated the continental tournaments for a decade before he went on to claim India’s first-ever track and field Commonwealth Games gold, in the 400 meters race at the 1958 edition. He clocked 46.6 secs, setting a new world record.

Despite being a formidable force in the continental level, Olympic eluded the “Flying Sikh”. Milkha featured in the Olympic Games only once which was at the 1960 Rome Olympics. While he came into touching distance of a podium finish, he fell agonisingly short after being in a comfortable lead for the belter part of the race.

A misjudgment costs Milkha Singh Olympic glory

Milkha Singh (far left), in an image from the Rome 1960 400 metres photo finish
Milkha Singh (far left), in an image from the Rome 1960 400 metres photo finish

Milkha Singh qualified for the 400 meter event at the Rome Olympics. Milkha got through the heats with ease and kept bettering his timings as he crossed one hurdle after another. The sprint star finished behind USA’s Otis Davis in the semi finals as he was the fourth-fastest to make it to the final with a timing of 45.9 seconds.

Milkha got off to a great start in the final as he was quick to join the leading pack. The Flying Sikh completed the first half of the race with great pace as he continued to push himself. However, an error in judgment saw him slow down before the final turn, giving Malcolm Spence of South Africa enough room to close down on the Indian.

The mistake proved too costly for the Indian as Spence edged ahead to take the bronze medal in 45.5 seconds. Milkha failed to hold on to the lead after coming mighty close, finishing his run 0.1 seconds slower. It was a photo finish at the line as the race was won by Davis who clocked 44.9 seconds, a world record then.

I had the habit of looking back while leading a race,” Singh had said. “I was leading till 250 m but suddenly I wondered whether at this pace I’d be able to complete the race.

I knew what my fatal error was. After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250m and could not cover the lost ground after that, and that cost me the race.

Milkha Singh: An inspiration for generations

Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh

Milkha’s rise to become one of the top athletes in the history was not an easy one. The ace athlete had to endure a lot, from the country’s infamous partition to great financial troubles that followed but it never deterred him. Introduced to athletics during his time in the Indian Army, Milkha had a meteoric rise to become India’s brightest medal hope in the 1960 Summer Games.

Milkha boasts of four gold medals in the Asian Games to place India on the global map in athletics. His historic run in Rome where finished fourth was a national record which lasted for 44 year. As he passed away yesterday, his last wish of seeing India win an Olympic gold medal in athletics remained unfulfilled.

While he couldn’t see his last wish fulfilled, Milkha will be the inspiration whenever India wins its maiden gold medal in athletics on the grandest stage and hopefully, his wish will come true at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.