The story of Henry Rebello: Lost in the archives


Henry Rebello

From Leander Paes’ bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games to when Abhinav Bindra won India its first ever individual gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games to Sushil Kumar becoming the first Indian with multiple individual Olympic medals (Beijing 2008 and London 2012), India’s success stories at the Summer Olympics are rather brief.

The chronicles of failure and hard luck, however, stack them dusty archives pretty high.

Indian athletes have won a meagre total of 26 medals at the Summer Games. To put that into perspective, China left London in 2012 with a total of 88 medals.

History will always remember Milkha Singh as the man who missed an Olympic medal in the 400 metres at the 1960 Rome Games by a whisker – a race in which he entered as one of the favourites. So much so, a biopic on the travails and tribulations of ‘The Flying Sikh’ has grained critical and commercial acclaim.

Then there is the legend of PT Usha, who missed out on a bronze in a photo finish at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The ‘Payyoli Express’’ agonizing defeat by 1/100th of a second was rather reminiscent of Milkha Singh’s fourth-place finish twenty-four years earlier.

But one such tale that has been lost in those dingy libraries is that of triple jumper Henry Rebello.

Khashaba Jadhav won independent India’s first individual medal at the Olympics. ‘Pocket Dynamo’, as he was widely known, won bronze in freestyle wrestling at the 1952 Helsinki Games. But things could have been so different.

At the 1948 London Games, Rebello was a real medal prospect – a gold one at that. Four years prior to Jadav’s famous triumph, Rebello nearly won independent India her first-ever medal at the Olympics.

Rebello took to athletics at the age of 16, only because it was mandatory for a student of his school – Baldwin Boys’ High in Bangalore – to take part in sporting activities.

In 1946, aged 18, he won his first gold at the All-India Athletics meet in Bangalore. Two years later, in 1948 he sealed his place in the Olympic contingent by winning the national triple jump title with a national record of 50 feet 2 inches (15.3 metres) – a mark that stood uncontested for over two decades – at the All-India meet in Lucknow.

The fact that it was also the best mark of the year world-over made Rebello one of the favourites in London.

On the morning of August 3, 1948, with the XIV Olympiad in full swing, Rebello, all of 19, made it to the final of the hop, skip and jump – as the triple jump was known then. With the qualifying mark set at 48 feet and 6 inches, only the top 12 finishers would make it to the final, which was to be held in the afternoon. Rebello cleared 49 feet without much trouble.

In the typically clammy weather of London, calamity struck and the rookie’s inexperience cost him a place atop the podium.

Rebello, who did not care to warm-up prior to his first of six attempts, did his hamstring in the second stage – the skip after the hop – only to land awkwardly in the sand.

“I was just 19-and-a-half and inexperienced. I should have insisted on some time for warming up. That was my first mistake — not to warm-up. My second (mistake) was to go flat out on my first jump. We had a total of six and I should have taken things easy at the start.

“My right hamstring muscle had ruptured. I was thrown off balance completely and landed with a tumble in the pit,” Rebello told noted Indian sports journalist Gulu Ezekiel.

Rebello was carried off on a stretcher, knowing fully well that only he was to blame. The gold was won by Sweden’s Arne Ahman (15.40 metres or 50 feet 6 inches). Australia George Avery claimed silver and Ruhi Sarialp of Turkey took home the bronze.

London brought the end of Rebello’s career and he went on to join the Air Force. He retired as Group Captain in 1980 and was the first Director of the Sports Authority of India from 1984-88.

Rebello was not destined to have that expensive piece of yellow metal dangling from his neck. And his story of misfortune was told with such disheartening consistency that since Norman Pritchard, the first Indian (from the British era) athlete to participate at the Olympics won two silvers in the Paris Games 1900, India had won gold medals (from 1928-1956 consecutively) only in field hockey, a team sport.

And after Jadhav, who won his medal in 1952, he would remain the only individual medallist for India for nearly fifty years until Paes won a bronze in 1996 as Singh and Usha came ever so close to ending decades of heartache.

Yet, it is the annals of history that their stories are remembered, for good or for worse. The career of Henry Rebello, which was short, sub-plotted and exciting, is oft forgotten. That snapped hamstring is a reminder, like the photo finishes of Singh and Usha, of one of Indian sports’ most heartbreaking moments.

If only someone had the patience to look for the story under all that dust in the archive.

Edited by Staff Editor
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