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Post-Independence, India’s Olympic performance dismal


New Delhi : India’s participation in the Olympics dates back to the early 1900s, but post-Independence its performance has been dismal, with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver at Athens in 2004 being the best individual performance by an Indian.

No doubt, India has won eight gold medals in hockey, six of them in a row from 1926 to 1956. However, the post-1947 Independence era has seen such a decline in Indian hockey that since 1992 they have needed to go through the qualifying process to even take part in the Olympics.

Indians have also won three individual bronze medals – wrestler Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav (1952 Helsinki), tennis ace Leander Paes (1992 Atlanta) and woman weightlifter Karnam Malleswrari (2000 Sydney).

Twice India came within a fraction of a second of winning a medal on the track but Milkha Singh (1960 Rome) and P.T. Usha (1984 Los Angeles) were pipped at the finish line.

Milkha had the honour of breaking the then world 400 metres record. He was leading the final race till about the halfway mark when he inexplicably decided to slow down. Ottis Davis (US), Karl Kaufman (Germany) and Mel Spence (South Africa) all whizzed past the ‘Flying Sikh’, who was denied a medal by one-tenths of a second.

Usha came even closer in the women’s 400 metres, missing the bronze by one-hundredths of a second.

The 1976 Montreal Games saw Sriram Singh (800 metres) and Shivnath Singh (marathon) emerge as strong medal contenders but neither could deliver. Sriram finished seventh after leading the runners through the first lap of the two-lap event, while Shivnath was 11th.

Montreal was the first time that India did not find its name on the medals table, returning empty-handed as the men’s hockey team could only manage a seventh place finish in the competition played for the first time on synthetic grass.

A year earlier in 1975, India had tasted its lone hockey World Cup success when Ajitpal Singh’s men won the title in Kuala Lumpur.

Vasudevan Bhaskaran’s side did reclaim the hockey gold at the 1980 Moscow Games, but the competition was severely depleted by a Western boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

Indian hockey received the first jolt at Rome (1960) when it was denied the gold by neighbours Pakistan.

The 1964, the Tokyo Olympics once again found India on top of the hockey podium but it has been all downhill since.

Bronze medals at Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972) were the signal for the end of India’s dominance and, apart from the 1980 gold, the Indians have never even made it to semi-finals thereafter.

Milkha Singh remains the most decorated athlete in the country as his 400m national record stood for 28 years.

Born in 1935 at Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan), Milkha was given the nickname ‘Flying Sikh’ in 1961 by then Pakistan president Ayub Khan when the Indian comprehensively beat Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq.

“Milkha doesn’t run. He flies,” commented Khan after watching Milkha leave Khaliq gasping in his wake at an inter-Services meet in Lahore.

Milkha served in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (EME) regiment of the Indian Army where he trained under Havildar Gurdev Singh. He quit the army to join the Punjab government’s sports department and retired as its director.

At 71, the ‘Flying Sikh’ remains a keen golfer, a sport that has seen his son Chiranjeev Milkha Singh make a name around the world.

Another Armyman, Rathore, ended the disappointment of individual bronzes, shooting a silver medal in the double trap event in Athens. He missed the gold by a solitary point.

Commissioned into 9 Grenadiers in 1990, Rathore has since risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and continues to work hard in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Games, where he hopes to bag the elusive individual gold that the country has been eagerly waiting for.