While looking back at Indian Olympic history, one thing that emerges is the lack of medals from the most prestigious of Olympic sports- track-and-field. While India has gained notoriety for having one of the worst medals-to-population ratios in the world, it should be known that it’s not for a lack of talent but lack of appreciation of talent that India finds itself at the bottom of the list.
A number of Indian track-and-field athletes have qualified for the Olympic finals over the years, making it there against all odds. However barring a couple, most of the names are unknown to the average sports fan. To develop a genuine sporting culture in India, it’s important that fans start acknowledging sporting history beyond cricket. And hence this look back at Indian track-and-field pioneers of the past.
Henry Rebello: London 1948
Henry Rebello was the first athlete from independent India to qualify for the Olympic finals. His story is perhaps even more agonizing than Milkha Singh’s. Considered one of the best triple-jumpers of the world in 1948, Rebello was touted by former Olympic medallists as a genuine medal contender for the London Games. In a pre-Olympic meet, he had beaten all the triple-jumpers who were to participate at the Games.
He duly qualified for the Olympic finals. However as luck would have it, he was forced by the officials and coaches to make his first jump in the finals without an adequate warm-up, and suffered a terrible injury as a result. He could not participate further at the Games, a promising career cut short. He then joined the Indian Air Force and later the Sports Authority of India as an official.
Milkha Singh: Rome 1960
Milkha was the first track athlete from independent India to make it to the finals, where he finished a heartbreaking fourth. He finished 3rd in Round 1, 2nd in Round 2, 2nd in the semis before just missing out on a bronze in the 400m finals. Whether he broke the World Record at these Games is disputed, but his timing of 45.6 at the finals stood as India’s National Record till 1998. Milkha is still regarded as India’s finest male athlete and was the subject of a 2013 Bollywood biopic.
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa: Tokyo 1964
While Milkha Singh’s story is well known across India, his team-mate Gurbachan Singh Randhawa is unfortunately not as famous. Gurbachan was the first ever Arjuna awardee in 1961, and the winner of the grueling decathlon event at the 1962 Asian Games. A versatile athlete, he finished 5th at the 110m hurdles final at Tokyo 1964.
He initially finished outside automatic qualification in the heats, but made it to the semis as the fastest remaining runner with a time of 14.3 seconds. In his semifinal, he finished second, qualifying for the finals with a time of 14 seconds, at par with the best.
Though he could not improve on his timing and had to be content with a fifth-place finish, his feat stood as the National Record for 29 years. In addition to hurdles, he had 3 other NRs to his credit in javelin, decathlon and high jump.
Sriram Singh: Montreal 1976
Sriram Singh is considered one of the finest middle distance runners from India. The Asian 800m champion of 1974, his best moment at the Olympics was at Montreal 1976, where he finished 7th in the 800m finals. He qualified 2nd from the heats with a time of 1:45.86, and 4th from the semifinals with 1:46.42.
In the finals, he made the first tactical push and was leading till the 550m mark before losing steam and being out of medal contention. After the finals, the Cuban Gold medallist Alberto Juantorena thanked Sriram for helping him set the World Record timing of 1:43.45. Sriram’s finals timing of 1:45.77 stood as the NR for 42 years till Jinson Johnson broke it in 2018.
P.T Usha: LA 1984
PT Usha is the first female in this list and was probably India’s first female sporting superstar. Her fourth-place finish at LA 1984 is well known. She qualified 2nd from the 400m hurdles heats with a time of 56.81 and won her semifinal with 55.94. Despite never winning an Olympic medal, she has been an inspiration to Indian sportswomen for decades.
- Men’s 4 × 100 m Relay Team comprising of Anthony Francis Coutinho, Makhan Singh, Kenneth Powell and Rajasekaran Pichaya: Tokyo 1964
- Sriram Singh- Men’s 800m: Moscow 1980
- Shiny Abraham- Women’s 800m: LA 1984
- KM Beenamol- Women’s 400m: Sydney 2000
- KM Binu- Men’s 400m: Athens 2004
- Tintu Luka- Women’s 800m: London 2012
Women’s 4 × 400 m Relay Team: LA 1984
The team of MD Valsamma, Vandana Rao, Shiny Abraham and PT Usha finished 7th in the finals with a timing of 3:32.49, which was an Asian record at the time. They had qualified 7th from the heats with a timing of 3:33.85. This same foursome also comprised the ‘dream team’ which won Gold at the 1986 Asian Games, the first such relay medal for India. India’s enviable record in Women’s 4 × 400 m relay at the Asiad can be traced to the efforts of these four athletes.
Anju Bobby George: Athens 2004
In 2003, long-jumper Anju Bobby George came forth as the biggest name from Indian athletics after fellow Keralite PT Usha, when she became the first (and so far only) Indian to win a medal at the World Championships, a bronze which she won for a jump of 6.70m. She was looked upon, and rightly so, as someone who could finally break India’s Olympic jinx in track-and-field events.
Unfortunately, she could only finish 6th in the finals, which was upgraded to 5th after 4th-placed Marion Jones admitted to doping. What is curious though is that the three medalists, all Russians, later failed dope tests. Though the samples of the trio from Athens 2004 were destroyed by the time the doping matter came to light, Anju, along with her fellow competitors, is still pursuing legal action in hope of an Olympic Silver. Nevertheless, her feat of 6.83m at these finals still stands as the NR.
Women’s 4 × 400 m Relay Team: Athens 2004
20 years after LA 1984, another Indian team, this time comprising of Geetha Sathi, KM Beenamol, Chitra Soman and Rajwinder Kaur qualified for the Olympic finals and finished 7th with a timing of 3:28.51. They had earlier qualified 3rd from the heats with a NR timing of 3:26.89. Manjeet Kaur from the squad was also part of the team that won Gold at both the 2010 Commonwealth and Asian Games.
Krishna Poonia: London 2012
Krishna Poonia came into national limelight after winning Gold in Women’s discus at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, one of the rare events where all the three medalists were Indians. She qualified for the finals in the 8th place with a throw of 63.54m, becoming the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympic finals in a throwing event.
She improved on her performance in the finals with a throw of 63.62m, finishing a creditable 6th. In the process she also finished ahead of her arch-rival and former World Champion, Australian Dani Stevens, who had challenged Krishna following her CWG Gold.
Vikas Gowda: London 2012
Just like fellow discus-thrower Krishna Poonia, Vikas Gowda too was a CWG 2010 discovery and similar to her, became the fist Indian male athlete to make it to the Olympic finals in a throwing event. He qualified 5th with a throw of 65.20m, topping his qualification group, but could not continue the momentum in the finals, finishing 8th with a throw of 64.79m. He later went on to win the Gold at the 2014 CWGs.
Lalita Babar: Rio 2016
India sent a record number of track-and-field athletes for the 2016 Olympic Games. However none could make it to even the semifinals save Maharashtra’s Lalita Babar. Babar finished 10th in the women’s 3000m steeplechase finals with a time of 9:22.74. She had earlier qualified from the heats with a NR timing of 9:19.76. She was in fact the only Indian athlete to set a NR at the Games, summing up India’s disastrous performance.
What does the future hold?
While a Rio-like performance from Indian athletes would have been considered acceptable in 1964, it was considered shocking by fans in 2016. India has made rapid strides in the Olympic sports of shooting, badminton, boxing and wrestling, however Milkha Singh and PT Usha’s achievements in athletics have not been surpassed even after decades.
But with India’s growing economy and burgeoning interest among fans in sports other than cricket, all this could change. Neeraj Chopra and Hima Das have already become stars while others like Tejaswin Shankar are waiting in the wings. The government too has woken up, with initiatives like the Khelo India Games. If everything goes well, India might get it’s first athletics medal in Paris 2024, if not earlier in the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.