Milkha Singh: Asia’s most dominant runner at his peak
Milkha Singh, imprinted in the country’s athletic soul for well over six decades ago, was Asia’s most dominant runner at his peak.
The near-medal in 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics may have been a sporting tragedy, but Milkha was about triumph over adversity, in life and on the track. “He was an inspiration for us. Run, run, run, for Milkha ji, it was always hard work. No short run,” said Hari Chand, India’s greatest distance runner.
Chand, who bagged the 5,000-10,000m at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, paid tribute to Milkha for inspiring athletes like him.
“It was an inspiration for athletes to talk to him. Maza aatha tha! I met him after my two gold in 1970 and Milkha ji said ‘taj hai tere sar pe’,” Chand said from his village near Hoshiarpur, Punjab.
“You have to go one day, but he was fit and active at 91. It is a loss for our country.”
Milkha Singh’s rise to athletic stardom is a story littered with great obstacles being overcome; it began with a horrifying tragedy.
Born in undivided Punjab, the teenager was forced to flee his home after the horrifying experience of losing his parents and a sibling, killed in the rioting that followed Partition.
He saw, as he wrote in HT, “the birth of two nations, the bloodbath of the partition, and the murder of my parents.”
Hiding in the women’s compartment of a train, a fleeing Milkha arrived in Delhi as a traumatized and malnourished refugee. He tried to make money polishing shoes for soldiers, and was once jailed briefly after trying to steal food from a train.
Slowly, the rootless and moneyless Milkha began to find his feet with the help of some relatives in Delhi. He was determined to join the army, but his frail physique did not help. He was rejected thrice. But in an early indication of the tenacity that defined him, Milkha tried a fourth time, and got in.
He was assigned to the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME), Secunderabad where the newly enlisted jawan’s athletic abilities—a stamina built running barefoot in the countryside where he grew up—were spotted after he impressed in a long run. It opened the path to sporting stardom.
“I’ll always be grateful to the army. They made me run for the first time and discovered there was talent in me,” he said in a TV interview. A colony and the stadium where he trained in 1952-53 soon after joining the EME Centre are named after Milkha.
In 1956, when Milkha went for his first Olympics, he was bewildered by the level of competition. He had crashed out in the first qualifier, but after the 400m finals, Milkha went to speak to the winner, USA’s Charles Jenkins. Since Milkha did not speak English, he took his roommate, triple jumper Mohinder Singh, as translator.
Over a few hours, Jenkins generously explained in great detail his training programme and Milkha wrote it all down.
“I still keep those pages with care,” Milkha had told this paper in an interview in 2013. Back in India, he put his talent and grit through the framework of that programme and emerged as Asia’s preeminent runner. At the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games, he claimed a 200m-400m double, clocking a games record 21.6 seconds in the shorter race and 47.0 seconds in the quarter mile.
In those times there was no tartan (synthetic) track. They came only in 1964 (Tokyo Olympics). So, it was really hard,” Hari Chand said. Milkha defended his 400m at the 1962 Jakarta Games, clocking 46.9 seconds despite being past the peak he hit two years earlier.
One of the great moments in Milkha’s life was India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru persuading him to cross the border in 1960 and run against Pakistan sprinter Abdul Khaliq. His win earned high praise from Gen Ayub Khan, who said: “you didn’t run today, you were flying”. This led to his nickname, “The Flying Sikh”.
He left the army and joined the Punjab government as sports director after his athletic career. His wife, Nirmal Kaur, a former India women’s volleyball team captain who died of Covid complications a few days before her husband, was a senior official in the department.
Milkha explained his life and sports philosophy in 2017, in a letter to his 16-year-old self that was part of a Hindustan Times series with India’s sports icons.
“You have endured enough, but your hardships are not over. Later on, you will realise something that doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” he wrote. “It will be four years before you discover running. The quest for survival will take you to the world of sports. As a teenager, you may not have an idea about running as a sports event. As an orphan, it will not only be about learning how to survive the brutal world, but also about carving an identity.”
While acknowledging that missing an Olympic medal haunted him six decades on, he signed off on a positive note. “Never lose focus. If your passion for running is intact, I am sure you, the young Milkha, will achieve what this Milkha could not—an Olympic medal.”
1998 saw a rare controversy in Milkha’s life--he had offered a reward of Rs. 2 lakh to anyone who broke his 400m national record (the hand-timed 45.6 secs in the Rome final was converted electronically to 45.78 secs). Punjab’s Parminder Singh answered that challenge, clocking 45.70 secs to win at a national meet in Kolkata. Milkha raised doubts about the authenticity of the timing, saying he would give only Rs.1 lakh and pay the rest only if Parminder bettered his mark abroad.
Be it commenting on India’s struggle at the Olympics, refusing a life-time Arjuna Award, or encouraging son Jeev to take up golf, a game he himself played till the end, Milkha lived his life deeply.