By Harihar Swarup
Multan-born athlete, Milkha Singh, took up running after he saw his parents and seven siblings murdered during partition. His father’s last words were what saved him, and later gave India its first Commonwealth gold in 1958. Milkha passed away last week. What were his father’s last words and message were not known.
Milkha was affectionately given many names and one of them being ‘flying Sikh’. Many jokes too were coined around him. His English was poor, perhaps, because he could not get proper education, particularly in English. Once he was relaxing after a tiring round of practice. A passerby, a fellow athlete asked: “relaxing”? Prompt came the reply; “No I am Milkha Singh”.
How Milkha became flying Sikh? Haunted by the childhood memories of losing his father and siblings during partition in 1947, Milkha Singh had refused to travel to Pakistan, the same nation which bestowed him the title “the flying Sikh” in 1969.
Terrible images of dogs and vultures scavenging on mutilated bodies haunted Milkha for years during partition. He somehow managed to flee the country hiding in a woman’s compartment en-route to Delhi where he spend his initials years doing menial jobs.
In 1960 after the heartbreak at Rome Olympics, Milkha was invited to take part in the 200m event at an international Athlete competition in Lahore. Initially, he turned down the invite.
But Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, convinced Milkha to travel to the neighbouring country, where he was expected to face Abdul Khaliq who by then established his name in the Asian roster.
The stakes were high as Pakistani media hyped the contest to bilateral affair and posters of Khaliq VS Milkha Singh were posed across the country. But Milkha won comfortably.
During the felicitation ceremony, Pakistan’s President, Ayub Khan told Milkha Singh. ‘Milkha you came to Pakistan not by running. You actually flew to Pakistan. Pakistan bestows upon you the title of the “Flying Silkh”.
Milkha later said that while memories of his parents being butchered continued to haunt him, his return to Pakistan after 13 years and the love bestowed upon him, helped change his perception of the people of Pakistan.
Who could understand the importance of 0.1 seconds better than Miklha Singh? The legendary sprinter had once said “It’s pain that will end with my life”.
Milkha Singh has left behind a legacy that many Indian athletes can only match in dreams. Arguably the country greatest athlete, a man of many firsts, Padma Sri Milkha Singh, won free India’s first commonwealth games gold medal and Olympic final.
A legend despite missing a podium finish by 0.1 seconds in the 400m dash at Rome Olympics in 1960, pipped by South Africa Nemesis Malcolm Spence (45.5). Milkha termed that world record effort of 45.6 as his “worst memory”. In 1958, his best year, he set national records in the 200m and 400m at Cuttack National Games, won double Golds in these events at the Tokyo Asiad and took the gold in British Empire (Commonwealth Games). The last watershed moment in India’s sporting history as the country had to wait 52 years for another gold in track and field until Krishna Poonia’s discus throw gold in Delhi CWG in 2010.
Milkha carried the country’s hope in the 440 yards race at the Cardiff Arms Park with hardly any Indian support. Up against Spence, Milkha clocked 46.6 seconds to outspace the South African by 0.3 seconds while Charles Terrence Lobo of Canada finished third with 47 seconds. “I had tears in my eyes. It was a moment I never had planned for and never imagined. Spence was the world record holders and best 400 runner of the time”. (IPA Service)