The footage is grainy, and the commentator is firmly focused on a young Steve Ovett, much before he would become one part of the legendary middle-distance trio that also included Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram.
But in the Montreal humidity, the first tactical push, at the 800m final in the 1976 Olympics, would come from an Indian runner in lane No. 6.
Within the next two minutes, Sriram Singh Shekhawat, while fizzling out in the home-stretch of this final, would end up with a national record that has so far lasted for 40 years. His feat, the oldest Indian athletics record, will be up for grabs on Friday, when Jinson Johnson— the first Indian to qualify for the 800m in 32 years, since Charles Borromeo in the 1984 Los Angeles Games —takes to the field in Rio.
Johnson’s qualifying time of 1:45.98s is 0.22 seconds short of the mark set by Shekhawat, who was the lone bright spot in a dismal Olympics year that saw the hockey team finish outside the medal positions for the first time in its history.
Before Shekhawat, only three Indian athletes had ever made it to the finals of Olympics track and field events: Henry Rebello (triple jump, London, 48); Milkha Singh (400m, Rome, 60) and Gurbachan Singh Randhawa (110m hurdles, Tokyo, 64). Only four would match it: P T Usha (400m hurdles, Los Angeles, 84); Anju Bobby George (long jump, Athens, 2004); Krishna Poonia (discus, London, 2012) and Vikas Gowda (discus, London, 2012).
“I was tired, extremely happy and nervous before the night of the final. I hardly got any sleep. Those days, we had no idea of routines for rest and recovery. That was a big disadvantage, particularly because of my running style.
Shivnath Singh (the marathon runner whose record also stands to this day) volunteered to help me recover,” says Shekhawat, 64, as he watches the footage at his home in Jaipur.
The pace is blistering midway through the first lap of the final and having fallen behind after the second curve, Shekhawat makes an unusual dart for the inside lane after the 300m-mark. He just about pips Cuban legend Alberto Juantorena after the bell, the 400m mark, and, remarkably, at 50.85s, it is the fastest Olympic 800m split till then; it would only be bettered 12 years later in the 1988 Seoul Games.
“I was determined to win a medal and for that, I had to stay with the leading pack. I like to race from the front. It is how I won the two Asian gold medals — Tehran, 1974 and Bangkok, 1978 — but I think none of us realised just how fast this was. The rule change, due to which we could only break lanes after 300m instead of the 100-m mark, made us all scramble for better position,” Shekhawat says. But even being in the Olympics was a remarkable achievement for the man from Bhadnagar in Rajasthan, who only took to running after joining the Rajputana Rifles as a 20-year-old in 1966. Initially a 400m runner, he would switch to 800m in 1968 at the insistence of Mohammad Ilyas Babar, his much-acclaimed coach. In Montreal, Shekhawat would lead the race till the 550-m mark, before Juantorena picked up pace and ran past him. Soon, much of the pack would follow. “When the third runner (Ivo Vandamme) ran past me, I was demoralised. I began to feel the medal slipping away and then I started getting tired,” he says. At 600m, there is a token effort to hold off German Willi Wülbeck but by then, the jawan is a spent force, consumed by the very fiery pace he helped set. He would eventually cross the tape in seventh, just ahead of Italian Carlo Grippo; a real distortion of his capabilities as a runner. After the race, Juantorena would attribute his world record time — the Cuban took gold at 1:43.45s — to Singh’s front-running. “He thanked me for the race. I have no regrets. That’s how I liked to run but three days of continuous events took their toll (The qualifying round, the semifinal and the final were on successive days),” says Singh, who retired from the Army as a Captain in 1988. Such was the pace at the 1976 finals, that Singh’s time would’ve actually earned him a silver in the next Olympics. While he finished way behind the Cuban on that day, Singh would end up with a record of his own — and one that would last longer than Juantorena’s, much longer. Singh’s 1:45.77s is still the Indian national record in the 800m, making it the longest standing in the country. “It should not have stood for this long. It is a poor reflection of athletics in the country. These days, athletes don’t seem to want to work hard. When they win something at the junior level, they’re given jobs, after which, there is little incentive. In our times, most of us were either from the Army or the police. Discipline was key. You couldn’t even go out at night,” says Shekhawat. The two-time Asian Games gold medallist had a knack of reserving his best for the big stage. In Montreal, Singh would shatter his personal best of 1:47.0s with a sensational 1:45.86s in his very first heat, finishing second behind the American Richard Wohlhuter. That would earn him a berth in a high-powered semifinal that included Juantorena, eventual silver medallist Ivo Vandamme (Belgium), Ovett and James Robinson of the US. Singh would pip Robinson for the fourth spot. But his exploits in that Olympics, would, ironically, follow the trajectory of his strides in that final. Having been celebrated back then, they would become footnotes to other sporting achievements. And there would be little acknowledgement on its 40th anniversary, which fell on July 26 this year. “I like to stay away from the limelight. I am a shy person and that is why probably people forgot about those days,” says Singh, who retired as a Sports Authority of India coach in 2008. As for Jinson Johnson, the 64-year-old believes the Kerala athlete won’t get a better chance to break the record. “The 800m is a much faster these days. But the competition will help him run faster. Let’s hope he does well,” he says.
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