June 18, 2024

Sports Enthusiast

Professional Sports Purveyors

Milkha Singh, India’s Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century

India has not much of a tradition in the field of sports and hardly any in the men’s track and field events. It is hard to reconcile that a nation of over a billion people has a paucity of heroes in the men’s track and field events.

Track and field events consist of the speed races and the events of brawn and strength like the hammer throw, javelin and discuss throw. There is also the marathon and the decathlon. But a look at the record books will show that only one name consistently pops up, Milkha Singh. It is a matter of eternal shame for the Indian nation that apart from Milkha Singh no other man made a mark in any event at the international level in any track and field sports for close to a hundred years.

The reasons for this are manifold and among them is the poor national diet in proteins and lack of training facilities. Thus for Milkha Singh to have emerged from this morass is itself a tremendous achievement.

Early Life

Milkha Singh was born in the Punjab into a farmer’s family. Jobs in those days were at a premium and Milk like many Sikhs from the Punjab joined the Indian army. Not many know that Milkha Singh was born in Pakistan in 1935 and had the mortification of seeing both his parents being butchered before his eyes during the 1947 partition riots.

His joining the army was a god send as his commanding officer saw his potential and encouraged him to take up athletics. In those days there were hardly any training facilities outside the army and Milkha made full use of them. Another reason which he confessed later was the fact that athletes were given special rations and milk.

International Career

Milkha took part in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, but was not a success. But the experience was invaluable for him and on his return he dedicated himself to the 100m, 200m and the 400m. The last-named was his pet event and he excelled at it. We must remember that what ever Milkha achieved was without any foreign coach and solely by his own dedication and hard work.

Milkha now burst on the International stage when at the 1958 Asian games he won the gold medal in both the 200m and 400m events. Have we ever heard of any Indian athlete winning 2 gold medals in a track event after him? Milkha clocked a time of 21.6 and 47 seconds respectively. This was the time the world took notice of a bearded Sikh with long hair on the international stage and nicknamed him as the ‘Flying Sikh’. He followed up by winning the 400 m event at the Cardiff Commonwealth games with a timing of 46.16 seconds. He was the first Indian to win a gold medal at the commonwealth games after independence. Milkha again won a gold medal in 400m at the 1962 Asian games.

1960 Rome Olympics

A word about Milkha’s performance at the 1960 Rome Olympics will not be out-of-place. He was entered in the 400m and was the favorite to win the gold. In all the heats before the final he qualified easily and the day dawned as Milkha took the field in the finals of the 400m run. No Indian man before and after him has ever entered the final six of a sprint event in the Olympics other than Milkha Singh.

The race was lost by Milkha because of bad planning. As the race commenced Milkha shot in the lead and lead by a for the firs t 200m. Then inexplicably he slowed down for a fraction of a second. Later he realized he had made a tactical mistake as he was conserving his energy for a last burst. But other athletess surged ahead and Milkha broke the Olympic record but lost the race. He was placed 4th and the fact was that he had beaten Spence and other winners in various events earlier. This was a bitter pill for all Indians. However India hailed its hero who had gladdened the hearts by being the only Indian ever to enter the final of an Olympic event in the track sprints.

Final Word

International sports pundits hailed Milkha as a great athlete, the greatest who ever emerged from India. He was awarded the Padma Shree in 1959 and even Pandit Nehru hailed his exploits. There is no doubt that Milkha was a man of indominatble spirit and he did India proud. But the sad part is that 50 years down the line no Indian man-made it to the finals of any sprint event at the Olympics. That is a tragedy. So let us remember Milkha Singh the flying Sikh and resolve that India will produce at least another 100 flying Sikhs. Will it happen?