The Indian story of missing by the proverbial whisker

KOCHI, AUG. 1. Set in a quiet corner near the old Christ the King Church and a small cemetery, the Loyola College athletic ground in Chennai has an old-world charm about it. And in the late 1940s, Henry Rebello, one of India's best triple-jumpers, trained there.

He was an all-rounder of sorts and one year, according to some old-timers, the Loyola student won almost all the sprints, jumps and hurdles events at the Bertram tournament with meet records and was awarded the Bertram Cup.

In February 1948, Rebello, only 17 then, set a National record at Lucknow with a leap of 15.29m, a mark which stood for nearly 25 years. He was soon on his way to the London Olympics that August.

Big leap

And just before the London Games, he is said to have managed a big leap of 15.86m, which was among the world's best that year. According to Track and Field News, the respected American magazine, Rebello was ranked No. 5 in the world in 1948, behind Japan's Keizo Hasegawa, Sweden's Arne Ahman, Australia's George Avery and Brazilian Geraldo de Oliveira.

When the Olympics resumed in 1948 after a 12-year break owing to the World War II, Japan, then a superpower in men's triple jump, was not invited. And missing was world No. 1 Hasegawa, which made Rebello one of the favourites.

Dreams in tears

Rebello easily entered the final. But unfortunately, as he warmed up for the final series, the event was interrupted for a medals ceremony.

There was a long break and soon after the function, Rebello was suddenly asked to take his turn. He was not properly `warm' this time. He tore his hamstring and with it ended Rebello' dreams in tears.

Ahman (15.40m) won the gold while Turkey's Ruhi Sarialp took the bronze with 15.025, which was much inferior to Rebello's National mark.

Shattered by the London blow, Rebello faded from the big stage soon after. But another star, Brazilian Adhemar Ferreira da Silva who also tore a muscle after the unfortunate interruption in London, went on to win the next two Olympics, with world records too.

Ironically, Indian athletics' golden memories at the Olympics are full of tears. And missing the medal `by a whisker' became a familiar story a few times after that.

Twelve years later, Milkha Singh was ranked No. 4 in the world in the men's 400m. For sheer consistency, you could count on the Flying Sikh for in his heyday Milkha had won 77 of the 80 races he ran, many of them abroad.

But when it came to the race of his life at the 1960 Rome Games, he was unlucky to miss the bronze narrowly despite a valiant effort.

It was the greatest 400m run in history and probably the closest too. And while the first two finishers, American Otis Davis and German Carl Kaufmann, shattered the World record, bronze medallist South African Mel Spence and fourth finisher Milkha Singh broke the existing Olympic record.

"I was going strong till about 250m, then I thought my pace was too fast and I slowed down a bit. Later, I turned back, or it was probably a side-glance, but it was the biggest mistake I made as I lost a fraction of a second which turned out to be the difference between bronze and fourth. I cried and cried," said Milkha, the pain still fresh, when he spoke about the incident years later.

Absent lunge

If a side-glance cost Milkha a medal, the absence of a lunge proved disastrous for P.T. Usha at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The women's 400m hurdles made its debut at LA and after beating favourites, Australian Debbie Flintoff in a pre-Olympic meet in Walnut and American Judy Brown in the Olympic semifinal, the Payyoli Express emerged as a sure medal candidate.

But missing was a quick dip at the finish and the bronze slipped through her fingers. However, Usha's performance brought about a revolutionary change in women's athletics in the country.

In other close finishes, the versatile Gurubachan Singh Randhawa who was strong in the high hurdles (world No. 9 in 1964), high jump, javelin and decathlon, was fifth in the 110m hurdles at the 1964 in Tokyo while Sriram Singh, after being on world record pace in the early part of the 800m race in Montreal 1976, could only finish seventh.

Well, Anju Bobby George has a chance to wipe away all those tears.

Recommended for you