Farewell to Milkha Singh, the legend


S R Suryanarayan


COLUMN

Bystander


Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh |PTI

This was the one big battle that he finally succumbed to. All his fighting abilities could help him postpone the inevitable or rather take him close to the finish line but then came the fall and the end script. He became Covid-19's latest precious victim, a gem of Indian sports nay even the world, 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh. The spontaneous outpouring of emotions from across the sports fraternity and even the general citizens put Milkha's grand stature in the proper perspective. Like the split second miss of a medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960 when the greatest moment in Indian athletics seemed almost there before the slip came to douse all hopes, his end too came in a similar fashion. The 91-year old had fought the battle of the infection bravely, even seemingly coming out of it after testing negative but the reverse thereafter was to silence this great Sardar forever. Milkha Singh faded away into history but his deeds and tales of his grit and valour will ever remain alive to inspire generations of sportspersons across the country.

Rarely have we come across someone who had been through all kinds of trauma and tribulations in life as he had. Born in Pakistan and then caught in the throes of partition when just a young boy, facing the shattering sight of his parents getting massacred and running away thereafter for his own life! With nothing to look forward to but just escape, he manages to come to home-land India and there the struggle resumes. Running was a natural process of his life so to say and it was the Indian army that perhaps moulded that into a winsome virtue to propel him to a world of fame and recognition. From a low to a high, Milkha had seen it all but even in his wildest dream he would not have thought he would end up one day to be the most sought after athlete of the country. The 'flying Sikh' is a sobriquet, it is said, that he had earned from Pakistan after he outran that country's great Abdul Khaliq in what was an Indo-Pak sports meet held prior to the 1960 Olympics.

At a time when the Indians were best known for their hockey skills with each Olympics in that period bringing a fresh gold to the stick-wizards, it was a refreshing diversion to see a Sardar crossing all expectations. Just as well that it happened at the 1960 Olympics where Indian hockey had for the first time after six successive gold medal finishes, went out losing to Pakistan in the final. The shock was more or less compensated by the stupendous or brave effort, as it were by Milkha in the 400 m. In the midst of some of the best runners, then including Malcolm Spence, the South African who was a world record holder, the Indian ace held his own, looking assured of finding a place on the podium but as they say an error of judgement did him in. As he was to narrate later, he committed the mistake of looking back to judge his position (a habit he said he had none to correct during his time) and the momentum was lost. Just one hundredth of a second separated him from the eventual bronze medal winner Spence. But Milkha had set a national record that stood the test of time for close to four decades.

Milkha Singh
Milkha's national record stood
close to 4 decades

Coming as it had done after his big success in the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff where he became the first Indian to win a gold medal in an individual event (440 yards run) and turned an instant national hero, at the expense of the same Spence, this Rome happening was something that was to hurt him all through his life. By then the ace runner had already set up his own standards, having won gold medals in the Asian Games Tokyo and later to repeat that feat four years later in Jakarta. It was Milkha's dream that one day some other Indian would outshine him with a medal in the Olympics. He had wanted to see that happening in his lifetime. Indeed over two decades after the Rome event, we had P.T. Usha, an athlete whom he admired a lot for the same gritty outlook and explosive running style, almost there to fulfil his dream in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. But like Milkha himself, after soaring expectations in the run up to the main event, the Kerala ace, álready the country's best known female athlete by then, missed the 400 m hurdle medal by one hundredth of a second. Like Milkha so too for Usha, it had to be so close yet so far!

Yet for all this, it was an amazing journey for this modest Sardar who had only his swift pair of heels to build a life, a career and a living. The Indian Army provided him the succour even if it had to be after repeated attempts to get into the force and his running skills and achievements saw him rise from a sepoy to a junior commissioned officer. Such was the esteem and fame he had gained that after his retirement post the 1964 Olympic Games, he was given employment as Director of sports in Punjab Schools Department. By then he had settled well in life. What he prided himself thereafter was that he had two Padma Shri in the family referring to himself and his son Jeev Milkha Singh, a noted and distinguished golfer. Maybe, just maybe, someday there will be an Indian talent who will realise the unfulfilled dream of this legend with an Olympic medal. The story of Milkha Singh will be complete only then.

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