The late Milkha Singh was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word. It is a bitter pill to swallow that coronavirus has claimed India’s pride at the age of 91. Singh breathed his last in Chandigarh’s Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research where he was receiving treatment after contracting the infection on 19 May.
Packed with muscle and incredibly light on his feet, the turban-clad sprinter had numerous awards lining his shelves, comprising Golds at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. He was also one of two Gold medallists for India in the Commonwealth Games, at Cardiff in 1958.
Traumatised Milkha Turned to Running
Scarred after witnessing the gut-wrenching death of his parents in the aftermath of India’s Partition, he took cover in refugee camps before moving to his sister in Delhi.
The harrowing episode had filled his naïve self with vengeance and almost rendered him a rebel. But better sense prevailed as Milkha, after a hat-trick of rejections, landed a job in the army in November 1952, where he learnt the basic fundamentals of running.
1956 Olympics, a Harsh Reality Check
It was on the back of his Herculean work ethic that Milkha mastered the art of 400-metre sprinting and turned heads at the National Games hosted at Patiala in 1956. He represented India as a rookie at the 1956 Olympics but failed to progress beyond the heats in either the 200m or 400m. However, a meeting with idol Charles Jenkins was a huge motivating factor.
‘’I did not fare well in 1956 during my first visit to the Olympics in Australia. But I had an opportunity to meet Charles Jenkins of USA who won gold with a timing of 46.7 seconds. He really inspired me and gave me his entire training schedule which I then followed religiously.’’ Milkha recounted.
Stronger, Fitter, Better: Milkha Ruled the Roost in 1958
The ignominy at the big stage stung and a resolute Milkha left Melbourne determined to, in his words, transform himself into "a running machine".
From collapsing under the sun after practising for hours in the heat to running up mountains, and racing against speeding trains, Milkha left no stone unturned.
“I remember doctors telling me that I was putting my life in danger because of my strenuous practice sessions,’’ he says. “But I did not stop. I would tell myself that I would never be an also-ran. I vowed to do whatever it took to be the best in the world.’’ an adamant Milkha said.
The year 1958 had Milkha Singh written all over it, in bold and capital. In his maiden appearance at an Asian Games event – the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo – he clinched golds at 400m and 200m, wherein he zoomed past arch-rival and Asia’s top-drawer sprinter, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan.
He followed it up with another stellar show in the 400m bout in Cardiff, Wales, where he secured India's first Gold medal in an athletic event at a Commonwealth Games. Milkha pulled off an upset, besting the favourite Mark Spence in what was a neck-to-neck affair.
1960 Olympics: So Near Yet So Far
The revolutionary season meant Milkha was close to his peak in 1958. He seized numerous European events in 1959, and was upping the ante ahead of the 1960 Olympics. The selectors didn’t have to look far to cherry-pick the personnel. Milkha was the undisputed chalk horse and was billed as India’s first individual medal hopeful.
Squaring off in the 400m, Milkha Singh was leading the bunch till the 200m mark but an error in judgement spelt doom. Milkha eased off for a wee bit and squandered his superiority.
"The moment the starting pistol shot was fired, I took off. I was going strong for about 250m and leading the field. But then, thinking I would not be able to sustain the pace until the end, I decided to save my energy for the final burst and slowed down a bit. At that point I guess I even looked back.’’ Milkha chronicled how he fluffed his lines.
The race saw records falling like a deck of cards and eventually needed a photo finish to adjudge the result. While United States of America’s Otis Davis edged out Germany’s Carl Kaufmann by one-hundredth of a second, Milkha finished fourth with a timing of 45.73s - a national record that stood for 40 years.
“That fraction of a second cost me a spot on the victory stand,’’ he said. “After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory. I kept crying for days. The one medal I had yearned for throughout my career had slipped through my fingers because of one small error of judgement. I had no interest left in anything. I felt after years of dominating the sport the decline had set in,” Milkha opined.
Pakistan, 1960: Milkha Upgraded to ‘Flying Sikh’
Dejected by defeat, Milkha decided to draw curtains on his career. "Nothing and nobody could change my mind. I was so frustrated,’’ the veteran lamented.
However, life had other plans in store for him. The same year, 1960, General Ayub Khan, the then military chief of Pakistan, invited Milkha to cross swords against Abdul Khaliq.
The ghosts of the past came back to haunt the sprinting stalwart as he declined the proposal on a whim. His coaches Ranbir Singh and JS Saini were reluctant to let their star disciple walk away and kept persuading him to give it a go. It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who finally had to step in and talk Milkha into submission.
The gauntlet was thrown down. Abdul shot out of the blocks and cruised into dominance, but Milkha, out of nowhere, tapped into his reserves of rocket fuel and came from behind in emphatic fashion to breast the tape, leaving spectators and adversaries alike gasping for breath.
In the felicitation ceremony, General Ayub Khan bent and whispered in Milkha’s ear, “You didn’t run today, you flew.’’ Thus the moniker Flying Sikh was born and gradually immortalized.
Two years later, Milkha bagged two medals at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta – one for his individual performance in the quarter-mile race and the other as a part of 4x400m relay.
Grudges Prick, but Milkha Singh Was a Satisfied Man
But despite his glorious run, nothing could erase the dark memories of Rome. “My mistake at Rome will rankle in my heart until my last breath,” he regrets.
“I still feel the pain. I had trained for 12 months, and when you lose after putting in so much effort, it causes irreparable damage. I can never forget that moment. Everyone thought I would win gold, but I could not even bring home bronze.” Milkha deplored.
Nonetheless, Milkha made peace with his journey.
“I won several medals for India although I missed an Olympic one. God has been very kind to me. What more can I ask for?”