Who is the best Indian athlete of all time?

The semi-final of the Men’s 400 Metres at the Rome Olympics, 5th September 1960. From left to right, Germany’s Manfred Kinder, America’s Otis Davis (first place), Britain’s Robbie Brightwell and India’s Milkha Singh. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

If a question is asked to the same people at different points of time, chances are that you will get a different reply on each occasion. Well, a similar question is – who is the greatest Indian athlete of all time?

In the current situation, thanks to Bollywood, the answer is pretty clear, but surely, had this question been thrown into public domain at a different time, then it would have been different.

Rarely does it happen that all 3 medal winners break Olympic records in a single race. In the case of Milkha Singh at Rome, the bench mark was even higher, as Milkha had also shattered the Olympic record. To finish 4th in such a competitive race is a medal in itself, a fairy tale ended with gold to Otis Davis.

Still, even after 53 long years, Milkha stands as the only Indian athlete who has broken the Olympic record. Surely, his dream run and dominance in Asia, with the limited resources of the time, makes him strongest among the nominees.

PT Usha, famously called ‘Udan Pari’, was the pioneer of women’s athletics and gave much awaited confidence and respect to Indian girls. She did what Vishwanathan Anand has done to Indian chess with the theme – ‘If I can do it, so you can’.

No girl before her dreamt of running among the world’s best with head held high so much. A whole crop of inspired female athletes- Ashwini Nachappa, Shiny Wilson, Jyotirmoy Sikdar and KM Beenamol – emerged afterwards, and brought more medals in the Asian Games than their male counterparts.

Usha won 3 golds and a silver in one Asian Games, a record still unbeaten, and sadly lost out on an Olympic medal by 100th of a second, a race won by great Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel. She is, without an iota of doubt, the ‘Cinderella of Indian sport.’

The 4X400 metre women’s team has brought constant cheer to Indian faces, as we have more medals and dominance at Asian meets in this event in particular. In Asian Games, we are current gold medallists with a proud hat trick to show. It is the only team event of the track and field, besides 4X100. If team events are to be considered, then our achievement in this event is matchless. We are like the Spanish soccer team in this contest, where we have an equally strong bench line-up of eves.

If winning a medal at the world’s highest stage is the criteria, then Anju Bobby George is the lone option. She returned from the Paris World Athletics Championships with a bronze medal in her neck, India’s top most honour achieved in track and field at the international level. (Its colour could be changed as both jumpers ahead of her then have been proved positive in recent dope tests by IAAF). This Kottayam girl has won what no other Indian has achieved at international level.

On track, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, somewhat contemporary to Milkha, finished a fantastic fifth at the  Tokyo Olympics in ’64 in 110 meter hurdles.

He broke 4 national records in one National meet at Delhi and 2 years later at Jakarta Asian Games in 1962, he won the decathlon gold, an ultimate test of 10 athletic events. He was adjudged best athlete of the Games, a feat untouched by another Indian. No wonder, many Indians believe that he is the greatest and most complete talent to grace Indian athletics.

Another talent, Sriram Singh, came 7th in 800 meters at Montreal Olympics, a race which he led for 2/3rd of the distance. The winner of that race, Alberto Juantorena of Cuba, a world record holder then, still carries high regard for him. His run of 1:45.77 stood as Asian record till 1994 and is still untouched in India. The movie on Paan Singh Tomer caught Indian imagination through a powerful national award winning performance by Irfan Khan and put back memories of Sriram to mind.

In London 2012, Vikas Gowda finished 8th in discuss and Krishna Poonia ended up at 7th place. Gowda is training in the USA whereas Krishna is laboring hard to attain greater glories. They both are young, and certainly, we can pin our hope on them for a good result in the future.

Athletics is considered the ‘mother of all sports’. In Olympics, among all sports, it is called ‘jewel in the crown’. Its hard to imagine a nation producing quality players in different disciplines of sports without doing well in track and field.

The reason is simple, because to be good in any sport, first you have to be a good athlete. Along with football, it is the cheapest and simplest sport to understand, with not much of rules, technicalities, paraphernalia and special type of grounds. The divide between the rich and the poor nations is most blurred here.

Well, the search for best male and female athlete leaves us with many options to choose from and it is tough to tick at one. Let the fans decide.

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Vijay Anand
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