Hero and the almost hero: Why Milkha Singh was much more than a sporting icon

The Flying Sikh's legacy is tied to the appeal of a story which outgrew its many subtexts, some flawed, some edifying.

ByAnand Vardhan
Hero and the almost hero: Why Milkha Singh was much more than a sporting icon
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In the parched summer of 1947 Milkha Singh wasn’t running for a medal, he was running for his life. The heat was oppressive. “The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer” is how Khushwant Singh introduces Train to Pakistan, his novel about social unrest and personal suffering brought by the partition. That summer, Milkha's family fell victim to mob violence and he was asked by his dying father to run away. Milkha scurried away to the refuge of a forest to spend the tragic night; he had it in him to meet the physical demands of a run in sweltering conditions. In the years preceding the bloodbath, Milkha ran for fun under the punishing sun.

The first school that Milkha attended was almost 10 km from his village Kot Addu in undivided India's Muzaffargarh district, now in Pakistan. Decades later, as a part of its partition archives, the Dawn newspaper recalled: “Every day, he and his friend would run barefoot to and from school, across long stretches of sand. During the months of May and June, the sand was scorching.” Milkha made it a point to remember that he owed part of his stamina to this early phase of daily wanton running.

From being born in 1929 to a peasant family in rural west Punjab in pre-partition India to becoming a rare iconic name in Indian athletics, Milkha’s journey was remarkable for non-sporting reasons as it was for track-and-field achievements. His legacy is inextricably linked to the adversities that he faced on the way. In some ways, his struggles almost mirrored the testing period in the life of a newly independent India grappling with the partition, violence and displacement.

The arduous escape to Delhi, already swarming with refugees and gripped with rumours of the spread of cholera, was only the beginning of a tough fight for survival ahead. He tried his hand at a number of jobs, from a shoeshine boy to a shop cleaner near Delhi railway station. A brief spell of petty crimes also followed, mainly consisting of stealing in trains. A ticketless train journey once led to detention, only for him to be freed on bail when his sister sold her jewellery to pay for the bail bond. Her sister, who had escaped the massacre with him, suffered in silence the many travails of the time.

In hindsight, Milkha’s dogged attempt to try for a job in the army, after failing thrice, opened many doors for him. Once he joined the army in 1952, he was exposed to running as a sporting discipline. "I came from a remote village, I didn't know what running was, or the Olympics," he said, looking back at his early days in athletics. A good performance in a cross country run earned him the right to be among 10 armymen trained specially for 400 metres. This segment, along with 200 metres, remained his forte for life.

In the years to come, along with setting and breaking national athletic records in the 1950s, he became a four-time Asian Games gold medallist, and the 1958 Commonwealth gold medallist. Put in the context of the time, his Commonwealth honour was the first individual gold medal won by an Indian at the event, a feat for which prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared a national holiday at his request. However, the legacy of Milka Singh is more about so-near-yet-so-far miss at the 1960 Rome Olympics than any of his accomplishments. Four years earlier at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, he had failed to go beyond preliminary heats. In some ways, the early exit was a jolt for him and pushed him to review his training in line with the highest international standards. Under the mentorship of 400 metre champion Charls Jenkins, he had trained hard for the Rome Olympics. In his recollections, he talked about training to the point of vomiting blood and falling unconscious.

The Rome Olympics race, however, turned out to be a heartbreak. He counted it as only the second occasion when he cried, the first being after the loss of his parents in the partition violence. He missed the bronze by 0.1 second, clocking 45.6 seconds to finish the race. He always thought that his decision of slowing down a bit after a great start, to preserve himself for the burst of energy in the final 150 metres, cost him the race. “The one medal I had yearned for throughout my career had just slipped through my fingers because of one small error of judgement,” he regretted in his autobiography.

If the narrow miss of a medal in the Rome Olympics deprived him of a claim to iconography of a higher level, it also fed into the riveting tale that his sporting journey represented. Sports writer Rohit Brijnath, in a 2008 piece for the BBC, thought that Milkha’s loss in Rome evoked a sense of him being “the almost hero”.

“And this is when the story must be hard for him to tell, for however many times he tells it, the result never alters. He is always fourth. He is always .1 of a second too late. He is always the almost hero,” Brijnath writes.

The same year Milka was reluctant to visit Pakistan arguing that he wanted to be away from a place which held traumatic memories of his parents being butchered to death. Nehru is said to have persuaded him to visit the country and take part in an Indo-Pakistan sports meet. It was in this meet that Milkha beat legendary Pakinstani sprinter Abdul Khaliq in the 200 metres final. At the awards function, the then Pakistan president General Ayub Khan called him the "Flying Sikh", a sobriquet that lived with Milka for the rest of his life.

In the following four years, he did well to bring two more gold medals to the country at the 1962 Asian Games. However, his athletic prowess was on the wane and there were signs that he was a spent force. The 1964 Olympics again finished on a disappointing note; he called it a day, and retired from competitive athletics soon after.

Beyond track and field, his engagement with sports administration in Punjab was visible. However, there were occasions when he could have been more generous in acknowledging the new talent, and less churlish about his own records. One instance is obviously his failure to accept gracefully that his 38-year-old 400 metres record was broken by Paramjeet Singh in 1998. Instead, Milkha talked about the difference between cinder and synthetic tracks, and cited seemingly outmoded timing methods to defend his record. That was clearly an unsporting response from a great of the running track. Moreover, some of his bluster about the number of races he had won were also dubious.

Warts and all, Milkha Singh’s legacy is tied to the appeal of a story which outgrew its many subtexts -- some flawed, some edifying. His journey was also remarkable for how it intersected many troubled phases of a new republic trying to find its feet in the world, and have its run under the sun. Unlike the brawny actor who played his part in a 2013 biopic, the real and wiry Milkha had too many shades in his life to be dull in any age. His loss in Rome had the effect of a national grimace, his larger story of a life in overcoming odds offered an assurance in difficult times.

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