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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Those 400 metres in Rome: Heartbreak that won fans over

Gold medallist Davis set a world record of 44.9 seconds. Kauffman clocked 44.90. Milkha broke the national record but lost the bronze medal to Spence by 0.1 seconds; his timing of 45.6 falling short of South African's 45.5 in a photo-finish.

Written by Nitin Sharma | Chandigarh |
Updated: June 20, 2021 8:12:36 am
Milkha Singh's fourth-place finish in the 400m final of the 1960 Rome Olympics. (olympics.com)

On the eve of his historic run at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Milkha Singh was twisting and turning in the Games village. Milkha — who had finished second behind American Otis Davis in the 400m semi-final the day before — was perturbed by the wait for the main event.

“One of my strengths, which gave me an edge sometimes over my rivals was my runs in semi-finals and final on the same day. In Rome Olympics, the gap between the semi-finals and final was two days and the day after the semi-final, my whole night was spent worrying about the final,” Milkha describes the days leading to the race in the 1977 autobiography ‘Flying Sikh’.

“The second night too, I was roaming in my room unable to sleep before (then president of Indian Athletics Federation) Umrao Singh took me to the markets of Rome and talking about my life and wins.”

In the final, Milkha was drawn in the fifth lane. Completing the line-up were Germany’s Carl Kauffman in the first lane, Americans Earl Young and Otis Davis in the second and third lanes, South African Malcolm Spence in the fourth, and another German Manfred Kinder in the sixth lane.

The hard-run contest is chronicled in the footage from the Olympic archives. Milkha was behind Kinder and ahead of Spence in the first 100m, before taking the lead on the first curve. Running on the inside lanes, Davis and Kaufman covered the gap and passed the Indian. The final 150m saw Milkha lose speed and — on the final turn and in the final second — the third place to Spence.

Gold medallist Davis set a world record of 44.9 seconds. Kauffman clocked 44.90. Milkha broke the national record but lost the bronze medal to Spence by 0.1 seconds; his timing of 45.6 falling short of South African’s 45.5 in a photo-finish.

“I caught up to the leader in the first 150m of the race and I was running with more speed in the initial 200m,” writes Milkha in his memoir.

“At that moment, I stopped a little to see behind and that saw Davis and Kaufman edging past me and later Spence too crossing me. I made a final dash but that was not enough as Spence was running between the leaders and it benefited him. Even the first finish was a photo-finish and the third place was photo-finish and it was a nervous wait for all of us. I was disappointed that I could not win the medal which was expected from me. Whenever I remember that moment, my eyes are filled with tears.”

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