The ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh belongs to a different breed and he takes pride in reminding us that he raced against time, not against individuals during his peak days on the track.

Known for his free and frank opinion, the 87-year-old legendary athlete, who inspired fellow Indians to choose the path of excellence in the world of athletics, insists that one of the best ways to produce champions is to rope in Adivasis (ethnic and tribal groups) and the underprivileged youth into the sport.

“I feel once a kid has the comforts of luxury at home, he or she may not put in the desired efforts. This is where the poor have a different mindset and a greater urge to excel,” explains the two-time gold medallist in the Asian Games.

Milkha Singh was in the City of Pearls as brand ambassador for the Hyderabad 10K Run.

“Quite a few eyebrows were raised when I said that the Government should have coaches on contract basis for a specific period of four or five years once the existing coaches retire from service. For, there has to be accountability on their part. Everyone has to know what kind of efforts are there and what the results are from each one of them,” Milkha Singh remarked.

“Yes, the onus is on the athletes and the coaches and the Federation too. None of them can shun their responsibilities. You cannot any more blame the Government for the failure of athletes. Now, unlike in our days, these athletes have everything in place — the facilities, the training programmes and the exposure in terms of taking part in so many events,” he explained.

“Compare this with the days when people like me, the great hockey legends Dhyan Chand and Balbir Singh did not even have proper shoes to wear and still we excelled in sports,” he reminded us.

“Unless an athlete gives precedence to national pride and prestige when representing the country, putting behind the thought of what he or she is getting in terms of monetary benefits, the results might not be encouraging,” says the athlete who held the 400m national record (45.73) for about four decades.

“Let all of us remember that we won Independence after a historic struggle and then suffered because of Partition (when Pakistan was formed). I have seen in front of my eyes how my family members were killed during those partition riots. It is our duty to uphold the national pride,” he remarked.

“I don’t think India has any chance of making it to the final in athletics in the 2016 Rio Olympics, leave alone winning medals. No chance given the way things are going,” feels Milkha Singh.

Does this mean we need foreign coaches to train Indian athletes?

“I don’t believe so. We have good coaches but the only thing is they should feel their importance, relevance and also I reiterate be accountable,” he said.

On the controversial issue of doping, the four-time Asiad gold medallist said animatedly that if an athlete was caught doping, the coaches should also be held equally responsible.

“Unless the coach trains them in these things, how can the athletes dare to do so? It is sad that many athletes are now taking these syringes on their own too,” he remarked.

“You tell me why India could not produce another Milkha Singh? I am not trying to boast about myself. I am only trying to present the reality that a lot depends on the attitude of the athletes. We always felt it a great honour to represent India and never thought about what we are going to get in return and remember in our days, there were no incentives,” he said.

Does he visualise any role in giving a new direction to Indian athletics?

“I don’t think so. When I was ready, they looked the other way. Now, at 87, I am not sure where I stand in the contemporary scene. It is not that a Milkha Singh or some individual will change the face of the athletics scenario. It has to come from within and collective efforts are needed from all fronts,” he pointed out.

In an illustrious career it may be difficult to be specific about the high points, but Milkha lists out three milestones which he would cherish the most — the 1960 Rome Olympics when he missed the medal by a whisker in the 400m in a photo finish, the 1958 Commonwealth Games gold and the race he won against Pakistani Abdul Khaliq.

For someone who owes a lot to the EME Centre in Secunderabad where he competed in the first race of his life way back in 1951, Milkha Singh could not resist the temptation to visit that track (which was actually named after him during his visit to the venue last year).

“I don’t know whether the world would have known about me had I not been there in the Army then. I say it again, this is the birthplace of my athletics career. I always love this City which has a sentimental value for me,” he signs off.