India won six medals at London 2012 in four different sports. Many consider this as India’s first step towards being a sporting nation. A look down the memory lane of India at the Olympics shows that Indian Olympic history can be divided into two parts – up to Moscow 1980 and post Moscow 1980. Till Moscow 1980, India was a powerhouse in hockey and had won 8 gold medals, silver and a bronze. Post-hockey days saw India coming back without a single medal in three consecutive Olympics, followed by a single medal haul at Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. The last two Olympics yielded us 9 medals. This shows that medals were hard to come by for India for over a century from Athens till Athens. However, there were many incidents when we came very close to winning a medal but lost by a whisker. Why do we often falter at the last hurdle? Is it because of bad luck? But as the saying goes, ‘fortune favors the brave’. Aren’t we brave? Or are we missing that ‘X-factor’ that separates the champions from the other top performers? Let’s now look at the top 5 Indian heartbreaks at the Olympics.
5. Polish missile breaks Indian hearts – Hockey (Sydney 2000)
A strong Indian hockey team under the leadership of Ramandeep Singh looked all set to bring back the lost glory of Indian hockey. They started their 2000 Sydney Olympic campaign with a 3-0 win over Argentina and later drew against a strong Australian side. They faced an unexpected defeat at the hands of Korea in their 3rd match. However, they re-grouped well to beat Spain 3-2. India went into their last group encounter against the lowly Poland needing a win. After taking the lead, the Indians played a very cautious game. Rather than pumping in more goals, they just kept defending. With under a minute to go, Poland struck the killer blow, breaking a billion Indian hearts. This draw was very difficult for the entire nation to digest. No hockey fan could forget Dhanraj Pillay leaving the field in tears.
4. Paes-Bhupathi heroics fail to get the medal ( Athens 2004)
In spite of their personal differences, the Lee-Hesh pair is a treat to watch. Their on-field understanding and coordination are simply superb. They decided to pair up again, right in time for the Athens Olympics, and looked the best bet to win a medal for India. They stormed into the semis with some thumping wins. They were the only seeded pair among the semifinalists and looked all set to win that elusive Olympic gold medal in tennis. However, they lost badly to the German pair of Nicolas Keifer and Rainer Schuttler and were left to play the bronze medal match against the Croat team of Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic. At 1 set apiece, the decider set was a very fiercely fought one. This set saw Mahesh and Leander playing their best tennis together. The big-serving Croats too responded well. After a marathon 3rd set that lasted more than 2 hours, the Indian pair had to surrender with the Olympic medal so near yet so far.
3. His wings could not carry him that far – Milkha Singh (Rome, 1960)
Milkha Singh, one of the best athletes produced by India, went into the finals of the Men’s 400m at the Rome 1960 Olympics as the favourite. Having clocked a world record time of 45.8 seconds in the heats, he was expecting nothing less than a medal. After leading the race for most part of the race, he slowed down towards the final bend and had to finish a close fourth in a photo-finish. The ‘flying Sikh’ cried for weeks after the race and even contemplated quitting athletics. He recalls it as the worst memory of his life, second only to the death of his parents.
2.The Killer blow – Gurcharan Singh (Sydney, 2000)
Gurcharan Singh made it to the quarterfinals of the men’s heavyweight boxing and was a bout away from winning India’s first ever boxing medal. He was up against Andriy Fedchuk of Ukraine. The thrilling bout saw the Ukrainian leveling the scores 12-12 with 2 seconds remaining. The points marked by the 5 judges were calculated to break the deadlock and Gurcharan ended up at the receiving end. When the results were declared, his heart sunk, he fell on his knees and broke into tears. He could not come to terms with the loss and left the country to pursue a career in professional boxing. If he had evaded that punch in the dying moments, he could have become a household name in India.
1. So near yet so far – P.T Usha (Los Angeles, 1984)
Of all of the heartbreaks, P.T Usha missing a medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was probably the most agonizing. With women’s 400m hurdles making its debut at the Olympics, Usha’s Coach O.M Nambiar felt Usha had a great chance to win a medal at this event, considering her running style. She thus switched from 400m to 400m hurdles. Usha went to the Olympics armed with the confidence of defeating Judy Brown in a pre-Olympic event. The exciting race went to the wire and was decided using a photo finish camera. Initially, the screen displayed Usha as the bronze medal winner, which sparked celebrations across the country. However, a photo finish camera was used to conclude that Usha missed the medal by 1/100th of a second. She failed to bend her body at the finishing line to get the advantage. This was the year when television was introduced in Usha’s home state of Kerala. People from all over the state gathered at the nearest television point to witness the ‘Payyoli Express’ create history. They were all left heartbroken. Even now many fans recall that race with a tinge of sadness. This loss is one of the reasons that motivated Usha to start the Usha School of Athletics. Let us hope her school can nurture many future Olympic champions and thus wash away the sad memories of Los Angeles 1984.
The ones that missed the top 5 are:
1. Satyadev Prasad (Archery, Athens 2004)
At the Athens Olympics, Satyadev Prasad was in supreme form in the men’s individual archery event. After a couple of magnificent wins, he was in the third round to face the World No. 1 Korean Archer, Im Dong Hyun. Satyadev was in the form of his life and was leading when the last round started. Needing a 9 to win the match with one arrow to go, the pressure suddenly caught him off guard. With shivering hands and the clock running against him, his nervous last arrow could only fetch him a 6. He lost 167-165 and thus ended India’s bright chance of winning a medal in Archery. This did not make it to the top 5 as the defeat was in the 3rd round.
2. Abhinav Bindra (Shooting, Athens 2004)
In Athens 2004, a young Abhinav Bindra was in the finals of the 10m Air Rifle competition and was in the bronze medal position after 4 rounds. However, he finished in the 7th position. Later it was learnt that a flaw in the wooden flooring where Bindra was standing did not allow him to get a steady posture. This is more of a disappointment rather than a heartbreak and thus did not make the top 5.
3. Joydeep Karmakar (Shooting, London 2012)
Joydeep Karmakar came close to winning India’s 3rd shooting medal at London 2012. However, he finished fourth overall after scoring 595/600 in the qualification. Though he finished strongly, he was not very close to the medal brackets as the top shooters had the advantage of better qualification scores.
Indians have slowly started converting strong performances into medals. Let us hope that we improve this habit and that there won’t be such heartbreaks anymore.