Milkha Singh can be described as one of the most extraordinary athletes of our times. Milkha Singh was a genius and a genius is never trained. Without any formal training, without any financial reward and without any emotional support (he lost his parents during Partition and he had only brother and a sister to look for help) Milkha Singh took on the greatest athletes of his time and proved himself as good if not better. The burst of speed with which he broke the previous Olympic Games record of 5.9 seconds in 400 meters is now a part of folk lore in Punjab.
The fairy tale is repeated as part of Punjab’s rich heritage. Milkha is no less popular than Pele in Brazil and Maradona in Argentina. Generation after generation in India will remember fondly his exploits with which he set the tracks ablaze whenever and wherever he ran. Rarely has it happened in the Olympic history when so many athletes went on to break the greatest race of his time, this he had to, since he had to, since he had on blocks with him world’s greatest athletes of his time. Who would have dared to challenge their might, expect Milkha, who though respected them yet never feared them. He simply ran-SUPERB.
In the first heat in the Rome Olympics in 190 Milkha Singh clocked 47.6 seconds to finish second. In the second round heat Milkha cut off a few second to finish second to Karl Kaufman of Germany with a timing of 46.5 seconds. In the semifinal Milkha ran shoulder to shoulder with Ottis Davis of the USA to Finnish once again second but he further clipped a few more seconds from his early timing (45.9) .In the final Milkha Singh went off the blocks and took an early lead. Midway he slowed down a bit. This proved his undoing because other athletes went past him. Realising his miscalculation, Mikha drew out every ounce of energy for the final burst but failed to retrieve the lost ground. How fiercely was the race run by runners of such high order can be gauged from the fact that the winner Ottis Davis and Kaufman clocked 44.8 seconds to finish first and second in 400 meters while Mel Spence of South Africa timed 45.5 seconds to finish third. Milkha Singh who actually led the pack was untimely fourth, timing 45.6 seconds, a difference of just 0.1 second from the bronze. Thus upto the final he clocked 47.6, 46.5, 45.9 and 45.6 seconds, clocking a better timing in every outing.
Talking about the race Milkha Singh explained that he found himself running at a reckless speed in the initial stages of the race. Thus he tried to slow down a bit and this proved to be a big error of judgement on his part. Pitted against athletes of such high class only a small error separated the winner from the loser.
Twenty eight years have passed since Milkha hung his spikes yet no athlete has ever gone nearer Milkha’s magical timing. He was a product of that time when no facilities existed, no coach available, no reward offered and no job secured, yet armed only with an iron will and the will to draw his own course, Milkha reversed the movement of the wheels of destiny.
Born at Layallpur, now in Pakistan, on October 8, 1935, Milkha Singh shot into limelight during the National Games at Patiala in 1956. Two years later he shattered the 200 and 400 meters record in the National games at Cuttack. The same year he established new records in the 200 and 400 meters in the Asian games at Tokyo. He followed it up with a gold in the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in 1958. How did he come to be known as the “Flying Sikh”?. Milkha Singh was participating in the Indo-Pak duel meet at Lahore when he outran Asia’s most celebrated athlete in the 200 meters, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan. It was said that Milkha did not run the race but he flew.
Milkha Singh is sad to find that his exploits and achievements have not gone so far to inspire the younger generation. He is critical of the young athletes who aspire to reach the top via short cut and refuse to sweat out in the field. The government offers a number of facilities, there are a number of awards and scholarships, professional colleges offer seats to sportsman, jobs are secured for them, yet sportsmen of high order never emerge. It is the age of mediocrity.
Milkha Singh is, at present, Additional Director of Sports and Youth Programme, Education Department. Married to former international player, Nirmal, he has one son and three daughters. His son, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, is a top golfer and represented India in the Beijing Asian Games in 1990.
Hardly anyone knows in India why Milkha Singh was so popular in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The moment he would enter the stadium, the people would cheer him most enthusiastically. After all Milkha Singh was not the world’s top athlete, no doubt he was among the top runners in the world. Though Rome saw the assembly of top athletes, yet no athlete could draw as much response from the crowd as Milkha Singh.
The real reason for Milkha Singh to be extremely popular among the people was that Milkha Singh had long hair and beard. People in Rome had not seen any athlete with a hair do on his head. They thought the man was a saint. So they wondered how a saint could run so fast. In addition to that none in Rome had any knowledge about Sikhism. The people often came to Milkha Singh and asked why he grew long hair. What is a Sikh, what is Sikhism, they hardly understood anything about the young religion. Milkha Singh enlightened them as much as he could. Yet the people remained as curious as ever.
Besides, Mulkha Singh had embarked on a European tour before landing in Rome. He had won a number of races on route to Rome. Since he had made some of the top athletes lick the dust in a number of competitions, his popularity had spread far and wide even before he reached Rome. In the Olympics too Milkha Singh ran true to his form and ruined the reputation of some of the established stars. Almost all Sikh athletes and sportsmen tied a handkerchief on their hair-do since ‘patka’ was unknown in those days. Thus Milkha Singh ’s different headgear and his athletic exploits made him the darling of the crowd both on and off the track. Milkha Singh himself admits that he was popular because of being a Sikh. The long hair and the bread fascinated the Romans.
Milkha Singh had so much conditioned himself that at any given time and place he could run two races in a day. This superiority of strength had enabled him to win a number of races in the world. However, this superiority did not stand him in good stead at Rome for the simple reason that there was a gap of two days between semifinal and final races. This made Milkha Singh nervous. He felt very dispirited and off-colour. A day before the race Milkha Singh felt disturbed . But at that time a Punjab minister, Mr Umrao Singh, Who was the then president of the All-India Athletics Association,came into his room and took him out for fresh air. This eased the tension a bit and his mind was taken off the competition. The minister took him to some of the wonderful places of the city of Rome and later dropped him at his hotel.
Though Milkha Singh was feeling normal the next day, luck did not help him a bit. While other top athletes got better lanes, Milkha Singh was placed in the fifth. The lot put a German athlete in the first lane, the American in the second, a Pole in the third and South African in the fourth while the second German athlete was placed in the sixth lane. According to Milkha’s assessment, the German was the weakest of all the other athletes. Thus being in the fifth lane, Milkha could only see the second German athlete. Thus a weak athlete in front was no advantage.
Therefore, Milkha Singh took off the blocks with a great burst of speed, and managed to lead the pack within 200 metres. But Milkha Singh was running at a dangerously fast speed, so he thought of slowing down a bit. As soon as he checked his speed, in a flash three runners, he failed to erase the deficit of five or six yards in the last 100 meters. Since he found it impossible to catch up with the first two athletes, Milkha Singh tried to outpace South Africa’s Melcolm Spence whom he had beaten in the Commonwealth Games. But as ill-luck would have it, Spence got himself into the first two runners and Milkha found himself unable to catch up with. Almost all the first four athletes crossed the line one after another. It was a photo finish. Thus the announcement was held up. When the film was washed and the results were announced, the world of Milkha Singh lay shattered. In sheer despair Milkha Singh took to drinking to drown his disappointment. No matter how hard he tried he failed to remove the scar of defeat from his mind.
Two events stand out clear in the life of Milkha Singh, one the Partition when his parents were butchered, and second the defeat at Rome. Therefore, when an invitation came Milkha Singh’s way to run in Pakistan, he was not enthusiastic about it. He hated the place for; he had lost his parents and other relatives in a traumatic experience. However, he was persuaded to run against Asia’s best runner, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan. Khaliq was the best runner that Pakistan had produced and he had a string of victories in the 200 metres in Asia.
But as the 200 meters race began, Milkha Singh outpaced the Pakistani from the word `go’ and won in one of the most convincing manners. The people were wonder struck at the pace at which Milkha Singh had run the race. It was announced that Milkha had not run but had flown. It was during this race that Milkha Singh earned the `title’ of the “Flying Sikh.” The whole stadium was packed to capacity and the people had gathered to se the key contest between two of Asia’s finest runners. So when the Indian runner breasted the tape, the 30,000 burqa-clad women uncovered their faces to have a clear view of the Sikh wonder athlete . Milkha Singh was taken to the VIP gallery and introduced to Pakistan President General Ayub who was himself present at the stadium in Lahore.
Milkha Singh was awarded the prestigious ‘Padam Shri’ by the President of India in 1958 when he won the gold medal in the British and Commonwealth Games till now.
All medals and trophies won by Milkha Singh, including the running shoes with which he broke the world record, blazers and uniforms have been donated by him to the National Sports Museum at the Jawajarlal Nehu Stadium, New Delhi.
Milkha Singh has keen desire to witness an Indian athlete win a gold Medal in the Olympic Games, a target which just slipped away from his hand by slight error of judgement.