Milkha Singh became India’s greatest athlete for he just didn’t know how to quit. He was a curious mix of maniacal zeal, unflinching determination and exceptional self-belief.
I first met him in 1961 when in the nationals at Jalandhar he won the 200 and 400m races while I took the 400m hurdles. We went for an exposure tour to Germany soon after and that cemented our friendship.
I have seen this man train and have also trained with him numerous times and I can tell you that on the track he was an animal. A fierce competitor, he forgot all about friendship and his only goal was to be the best. Off the field he was a gregarious guy who lived it up with his mates - quite a Jekyll and Hyde fellow that way.
I used to come to Chandigarh to train with him whenever I could. Even during practice he never let me win. It’s always been a blow to my ego and something that I still have difficulty coming to terms with. We would be dead tired after hours of practice but he would stop only after I halted.
We used to practice at the Panjab University grounds and we were doing 300m runs. We had four runs and he beat me in all. Then he said that he was going to give me a 5m head start but he beat me again. I was the national champion in 400m hurdles but was still humbled by a man who, I think plain hated to lose. Sometimes, he went way beyond physical limits but would refuse to stop and his session would end with him vomiting up blood. He used to say that a champion carries on when all others stop. Even during weight training, he used to do at least 1.5 times more that what anybody else was doing.
If he ever felt the day’s workout was not enough he would get up in the middle of the night for a run. I suspect that he trained far more often at night than he let on for he was quite secretive about it. He would tie his food under his bed, slip out, train and then come back and eat. In the morning he would join the others at their practice sessions with no one any wiser!
He was a tough man and I think what he had to endure during his early life made him harder. A rough childhood, partition, murder of family and poverty made him stronger and hardened his resolve to succeed. Army rescued him; otherwise, his talent would have been lost. He also owes a lot to his mentor Havaldar Gurdev Singh at the EME Centre in Secunderabad who spotted him in a cross country run. The incentive for that run, if I remember correctly, was extra diet!
What he achieved given the equipment and diet he had is extraordinary. I can say for certain that had he been born in some other country or had the good coaching and facilities, he would have been a world beater. It would have been impossible to catch or match him.
In the present context, I think no athlete has the capability or ability to endure the training Milkha Singh used to do. His Cardiff Commonwealth Games gold made India believe that we too could be world-beaters.
That, I believe, is his greatest legacy.
The writer was three times national 400m hurdles champion in the 60s