The untold story of Lavy Pinto - India’s first (and only) 100m Asiad gold medallist
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It was on the fourth day of the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi, held in 1951, exactly a day after India won its first ever Asiad gold, courtesy swimmer Sachin Nag (in the 100m freestyle), a 22-year old Bombayite by the name of Lavinho (Lavy) Pinto was crowned the “fastest man in Asia”, when he won the modern day “showpiece” event - the 100m sprint. Pinto conquered the distance in 10.8 seconds, upstaging the Japanese duo of Toshihiro Oshahi and Tomio Hosoda, who finished second and third, respectively. Pinto followed up his 100m gold by winning the 200m event, which he did in 22 seconds.
Nicknamed the “Scorcher of the Cinder Tracks”, Pinto was born in Nairobi, Kenya before moving to Bombay (now Mumbai). He grew up in the Dhobi Talao area of South Bombay and studied in the reputed St. Xaviers School and College. An outstanding athlete since his school days, Pinto finished his matriculation in 1948. In a profile of Indian athletes competing in the Helsinki Olympics (1952), The Hindustan Times wrote, “...he (Pinto) beat Leslie Woodcock in a practice event and Woodcock saw in him the makings of a champion.” Soon after, Pinto joined the Tatas, where he linked up with a highly regarded athletics coach back then, Benson Proudfoot. Pinto, in many ways, was the torchbearer of a sporting tradition in Bombay, which was identified with its sprinters for many years.
It was in the Bombay State Athletics Meet in 1949, where Pinto shot to fame, when he won the 100m and 200m sprints. Pinto followed up his performances at the state level, by dominating national-level events. In 1950, in the 14th edition of the biennial “Indian Olympic Games”, Pinto set a new Indian 200m record in the second heat of the event by clocking 21.8 seconds. The Hindustan Times, in its coverage of the event wrote, “The only record of the meet so far was set up by Bombay’s rising athlete, Lavy Pinto, striding out stylishly and finishing with a sustained burst of speed. Pinto clipped 0.3 seconds of the existing record of 22.1 seconds…” The next day, in the same event, Pinto broke his own record of 21.8 seconds, by clocking 21.7 seconds.
A year later, Asian Games glory beckoned Pinto. In an article headlined “Asiad Jottings”, The Hindustan Times correspondent who covered the event wrote, “Nobody caught the public imagination in the manner Lavy Pinto did. He added 100m to his bag in really superlative style after a bad start. At the 50m mark, he was nearly two yards behind the Japanese Toshihiro. But once he had settled into his stride, nothing could live with him.” Pinto could have been a part of a historic treble of sorts, as one of the four sprinters in the 4x100 meter relay. As luck would have it, he sprained a muscle en route to the 100m gold, and wanted to withdraw. The story continues, “But he was persuaded to carry on, which he gallantly agreed to do so. He was the last of the team. By the time the baton was handed to him, India was some six yards behind the Japanese leader. Pinto made a great effort but though he reduced the margin, he could not catch up. It was bad luck for India. A fit Pinto should have won us the relay.” The Indian relay team (Alfred Shamin, Lavy Pinto, M Gabriel and Ram Swaroop) managed to bag silver in the event. He set a new national record
In the 1952 Bombay State Athletics meet, Pinto managed his best timing of 10.6 seconds, bettering his Asian Games gold medal-winning performance of 10.8 seconds. Before the Helskini Olympics, Pinto left for a two-month training stint in England, where he joined the London Athletic Club and linked up with the legendary Australian athletics coach - Franz Stampfl, the man who also coached Roger Bannister among others. Pinto who was named the captain of the Indian athletics team for the Helsinki Games, impressed in the events he was participating in. He came fourth in the semifinals of the 100m sprint with a timing of 10.7 seconds, and also reached the semi-finals of the 200m sprint, with a timing of 21.7 seconds. Pinto’s chances were ruined in the semifinals of the 200m run, when he was blinded by dust. The Hindustan Times writes, “Imagine the plight of a sprinter, off to a none-too-good start, being blinded by a whirl of dust. And that is what happened to Pinto. Particles of mud and dust splashed into his eye as the high-kicking Australian sprinter, John Treloar, was away in a flash. Pinto, semi-blinded carried on gamely, but the odds were overwhelming.” After returning from Helsinki, Pinto was quoted as saying that he was “unfortunately blinded by dust” in the 200m semi-finals and could not get into the final. He also admitted that he had “a rather slow start” in the 100m.
A few months later, in February 1953, at the 18th National Athletic Meet in Jubbulpore, Pinto once again broke his 100m personal best of 10.7 he set in Helsinki, by clinching the gold in the event with a timing of 10.6 seconds. Pinto broke another record in the 200m sprint, bettering his best (21.9 seconds), by clocking 21.8 seconds. In September that year, at the Amateur Athletic Championships Meet of Ceylon, Pinto won the sprint double (100 and 200m) - the only two events he entered for.
After his illustrious, and medal-laden career in athletics, Pinto worked with the Tatas, and had stints at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Air India, before moving to Chicago in 1969.