The Flying Sikh's exploits

GULU EZEKIEL

Milkha Singh (extreme right) narrowly missed an Olympic medal in the 400m in the 1960 Rome Games.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

MILKHA SINGH ranks as one of the greatest Indian sportspersons of all time. But his story is more than just about his sterling exploits on the track, culminating in the 1960 Rome Olympics where he missed a medal by a whisker in the 400 metres.

Milkha came to be known as The Flying Sikh in an age where the sight of a Sikh in the West was still a novelty and where his flamboyant presence ensured him a large fan following.

But in 1947 the 12-year-old Milkha had just one mission — to escape to independent India. His parents and other relatives had been massacred in front of his eyes in Lyallpur and Milkha was now literally running for his life, crossing the border at great peril.

All alone and with no one to turn to, athletics was to be his salvation and today if he is considered the living legend of Indian sports it is due to the grit and determination he showed in those painful early years. It was the Army that provided him with refuge and all the facilities for his beloved sport.

Within a decade of his second `life', he was making a name for himself on the international athletics circuit. Two Asian Games, three Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, he left his mark far and wide.

In the 1958 Asiad at Tokyo, Milkha not only won his pet event, the 400 metres, he also beat the favourite in the 200 metres, the Pakistani Abdul Khaliq and was the toast of Asian sporting circles.

The same year at the Commonwealth Games (then known as the Empire Games), he won his favourite event in 46.6 seconds, beating the South African Malcolm Spence, a name that would come back to haunt him two years later.

He was peaking perfectly for the Rome Olympics as his name spread far and wide, making him one of the most famous Indians of his time.

He entered Rome as one of the favourites for a medal after an outstanding season on the tracks of Europe. Facing him was the greatest array of quarter-milers ever assembled.

Milkha drew the fifth lane in the final after the heats had seen the Olympic record equalled by the American Otis Davis. The Indian star had beaten all the top quarter-milers in the world in the run up to Rome, except Davis. The experts predicted at least a silver medal for Milkha who would later admit that even he had gold on his mind, such was his form at the time.

Milkha still remembers the race as if it were yesterday. "Going into the stadium for the final, I was quite relaxed but when I saw my rivals, tension mounted. And with each minute it increased. I drew lane five with South African Malcolm Spence to my left and the German Manfred Kinder on my right. I was going strong till about 250 metres. But then I slowed down a bit. I thought the pace was very fast and I would fizzle out in the end if I continued at that speed. At that point I even looked back or maybe it was just a side-glance. But that fraction of a second decided my fate. One by one they all caught up with me — Spence, Kaufmann and Davis and it was all over. My mistake will rankle in my heart till my death. I could not wipe out the deficit of those six or seven yards in the last 100 metres, though I was running at my best.

The Flying Sikh lunging forward to win the 200m in the 1958 Tokyo Asiad ahead of the fancied Abdul Khaliq (left), Enrique Bautista (135) and Shariff Butt.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

"I desperately tried to catch up with at least the boy in the third place (Spence) whom I had beaten in the Commonwealth Games. But he was caught up with the first two runners and it helped him. We crossed the finish line almost together. I knew I had made a mistake but was hoping against hope as I waited for the official photo finish. But as bad luck would have it, I was declared fourth even though my time (45.6) was better than the existing Olympic record of 45.9. Davis and Kaufman were both clocked at a world record time of 44.9 and Spence was third in 45.5."

This race is considered one of the greatest of all time with the first two breaking the existing world record and the third and fourth the Olympic record. Even the fifth and sixth place (Kinder and Young) who both clocked 45.9 broke the pre-Rome Olympic mark. It was that kind of race. But that was no consolation for the heart-broken Milkha.

Unofficial automatic timings were also available at Rome and the timing for the winner was put at 45.07 seconds while Spence was third in 45.60 and Milkha was recorded at 45.73.

"My dreams were shattered", recalled Milkha with regret many years later. "I waited for the medal ceremony and congratulated Davis, Kaufmann and Spence. But to tell you honestly, I hated doing it. If I had my way I would have snatched the medals off their hands and run away."

It was not long before depression set in. "After the race, I had no interest in anything. I felt after years of dominating the sport that decline had set in. I passed a few days immersed in sorrow. To return to India in that state of mind would have been dangerous."

So instead Milkha did what he knew best. He participated in competitions across Europe to take his mind off the near-miss.

He returned to India wondering how he would face his supporters. He need not have worried. Back home he was received as a hero. Though his mistake rankled for years, gradually Milkha regained his confidence and composure. Milkha was soon back to his winning ways, claiming gold in the 400 metres in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games.

Milkha's national records (200 and 400 metres) have been broken after many decades. But nothing can diminish his towering stature. He now leads a contented retired life in Chandigarh after a stint as Director of Sports in the Punjab government. His son Chiranjeev Milkha Singh is one of India's leading pro golfers. The sporting spirit of the Flying Sikh thus lives on in the next generation.