Henry Rebello – The Olympic hero we almost had and nobody knows about

Henry Rebello. Picture courtesy The Hindu

This is the story of triple jumper Henry Rebello.

Henry Rebello could have easily become India’s greatest athlete – bigger then PT Usha, Milkha Singh and Anju Bobby George.

He could have had the honour of becoming the first Indian to win an individual medal at the Olympics. (I know that Norman Pritchard won two silvers in 1904 but I am not counting him)

He could have gone on to even greater heights – possibly a gold medal and a second Olympic medal as well.

Sadly, all this wasn’t meant to be.

Rebello was a natural. He took up the sport at the comparatively late age of 16 but in two years, he had won his first all-India event. Two years later, in 1948, he stunned everyone by breaking the national record and becoming the national champion.

His mark of 50 feet and two inches also happened to be the best jump in the world that year. In second place was the Brazilian Adhemar Ferreira Da Silva.

This meant an automatic place in the Olympic Games at London. Not only was Rebello going to the Games, he was also being considered a favourite for a medal by the experts.

Rebello’s phenomenal jump becomes even more astonishing when you consider that the conditions at the national meet were far from ideal – it was raining and the ground was soft and muddy.

He was still only 19; not even at the peak of his athletic potential.

Rebello got his first taste of international competition at a warm-up event organized a fortnight before the Olympics. Every world class jumper was in the fray and Rebello was in the spotlight – was his effort in India a mere flash in the pan?

Rather than crumbling under the pressure, the teenager rose to the occasion. He finished in first place with another jump of more than 50 feet. George Avery of Australia – another gold medal favourite – was in second, more than 2 feet behind.

And this wasn’t all. He also made a jump of over 52 feet but crossed the line by a whisker and his effort was annulled.

If there were any doubts over his performance in India, they were blown away by this performance. The Indian was now being hailed as a favourite for gold. Those favouring him for gold included the legendary Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame).

On the day of the Olympic event, Rebello easily qualified for the finals with a jump of 49 and half feet.

The conditions for the final were hardly conducive for jumping or for Rebello –cold and damp with light rain. Rebello was also handicapped as he didn’t have a personal coach. As we will realize, it could have made all the difference.

As Rebello started preparing for his first jump in the finals, he was stopped by an official as prize distribution ceremony was taking place close to the jumping area. 15 minute later, the official retuned and asked Rebello to go ahead with his jump.

Rebello had been grappling with a tactical conundrum – whether to go all out in his first jump or start slowly and then give everything in the third or fourth attempt? In the end, the inexperienced Rebello made the rash decision of putting everything into his first attempt itself. If only there had been a coach to guide him.

He made another blunder. He had been covered in a blanket and hadn’t warmed up yet. He should have asked for some time to warm up after the delay. Given the cold weather, which would have tightened up his muscles, this was critical. Instead, he hurried into his first jump.

It was to be his last meaningful leap. A leap into sporting oblivion; instead of the greatness which should have been rightly his.

He reached the take off line at full speed and then took off – for the first jump of the triple jump. And then his right hamstring went pop.  The muscle had ruptured and Rebello tumbled onto the pit in agony; having failed to even make a proper jump.

The event was over for him and his dreams were shattered.

The winning effort of fifty feet and 6 inches was made by Arne Ahman of Sweden. George Avery, beaten by Rebello in the warm-up, took silver. Had Rebello matched his earlier efforts, he would have won a medal.

Dejected, Rebello started losing interest in the sport. He had joined the Air Force by 1952 and passed up the opportunity for redemption at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

In the normal course of things, he would have gotten better and been at the peak of his athletic prowess at the age of 23 during the event in Finland.

The subsequent success of the Brazilian Da Silva (the guy who had the second best mark in 1948 after Rebello) makes a strong case for this possibility. Da Silva also made the rookie mistake of jumping without warming up in London and got injured. But he returned, a better jumper and a wiser man, to win golds in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.

Rebello was in store for more hard luck. Instead of being granted the ame reverence as Milkha and Usha, he is hardly mentioned anywhere. He is completely forgotten in the annals of Indian sports.

Rebello’s hard-luck story isn’t just a personal tragedy for him. It is also a tragedy for Indian sport. Just envision the possibilities for Indian athletics if Henry had won a medal in Independent India’s first Olympic Games?

His success would have inspired generations of Indian athletes to dream about Olympic medals and not mere participation. The athletic events at the Olympic are littered with near misses for India. The inspiration drawn from Rebello (had he won a medal) could have made all the difference.

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