Coming back to some Indian stories for our special series on the Olympics, Milkha Singh and his share of folklore at the pinnacle stage of modern-day sports deserves its fair place at the same. Singh’s journey was right from zero to hero almost – agonizingly falling short just by a fraction in the race that mattered the most.
Milkha Singh was born in modern day Punjab province of Pakistan in the pre-Independence, British era. He lost almost his entire family in the violence during the Partition in 1947. Barely a teenager then, he escaped the carnage himself to migrate to Delhi where he lived his initial years at a refugee camp with his married sister – whom till date he considers to be the most important person in his life. He spent his younger days with the ignominy of being a dacoit and habitual offender and even spent a brief stint at the Tihar jail.
Later on, a friend advised Singh to try out his luck at the Army – which the latter cracked in his fourth attempt. It was at the Army Recruitment Camp that the young Milkha, who had a childhood routine of running long distances to school, was introduced to professional athletics. After impressing the selectors at the National Meet with record time, Milkha was shortlisted for the 1956 Melbourne Games – his first participation at the holy grails of athletes.
Singh, who was in his early 20s then, was still to reach his peak both in terms of skill and dedication. Landing in a foreign land for the very first time, he lost focus and could only put up a poor show – finishing last in a four participant field in the first qualifying heat for 400m track event. The same result followed for the 200m event as well – coming fourth in a five candidate field. He was very disappointed at that moment with his disappointing outing – and so was anybody who followed him closely at the Games. But in the long run, this loss turned out to be the greatest motivating factor in Singh’s career and which won him a lot of medals as well as took him on the cusp of winning an Olympic medal.
Post the Melbourne debacle, Singh took on a tough regimen to improve his fitness and skills. In fact, the sepoy-ranked official in the Indian Army would often bleed from nose and suffer fatigue due to rigid training sessions. But he kept on going and the efforts bore fruits soon.
Before the next Games at Rome in 1960, Milkha Singh became one of the greatest athletes in Asia – winning titles at various continental and international level events. It was due to his double winning feat (in 200m and 400m) in the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games that Singh was honoured with the Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award in the country. Such was his domination during those years that some media sources even stated Singh to have clocked the world record time (45.8 sec) of the 400m discipline at an event in France – though the jury is still out on the authenticity of such claims.
In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Milkha lived up to his expectations as he qualified all his initial heats. He came second in each of these three races. In the final, Singh was off to a flying start and those who witnessed the race live even claim Singh to have lead the race for the first 200m. It was after that Singh slowed down possibly due to the fact that he ran out of steam.
Eventually, the race ended in a photo-finish with one second splitting the winner and the one who came sixth. After rounds of calculation, Singh was adjudged to have finished fourth – just a fraction of a second behind Malcolm Spence of South Africa – thus missing out on a podium finish. Singh admitted it to be the most agonizing race of his career.
The only other time that Singh ran in the Games was in 1964 at Tokyo in the 4X400m relay – where India were eliminated in the very first heat courtesy finishing fourth in a field where the first three could qualify – thus ending up sans an Olympic medal.
A medal or not, a record or not, the man will always be considered as the greatest track athlete that India have ever produced. The Flying Sikh – as he was named by General Ayub Khan of Pakistan after his stupendous win at a meet in the very country where he was born, saw the massacre of his kins and which he later fled – would always be hold in the highest regard more because of his dedication for his game, simplicity in spite of being a celebrity and being a source of inspiration to the future aspirants than of course for his exploits in the track.