Sardar Milkha Singh is the greatest living Sikh Athlete. Born in a family of modest means, joining the army and then discovering the penchant for running and winning is his life in summation. . He deservedly got an epithet named "Flying Sikh" from Pakistan General Ayub Khan. Till date (Until 2000 Sydney Olympics) the 'Flying Sikh' is the only Indian to have broken an Olympic record. Unfortunately, he was the fourth athlete to reset the mark and thus missed the bronze medal in the 400m event at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
For the man who won 77 of the 80 races he ran, Milkha Singh has no medals. It has been some years that 'The Flying Sikh' donated his sporting treasures to the nation. No personal souvenirs line his living room walls, no trophies sit on the mantle. Instead, the walls make do with pictures of the surgeon in America who saved his wife's life and Havildar Bikram Singh, a Kargil martyr. "I have given permission that my medals be transferred from the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi to the sports museum in Patiala," says the 72-year-old Singh. Strangely, the stadium gallery lined with many of India's sporting talent does not have a single picture of Milkha Singh. In a country where great sportspersons are few and far between, India has a strange way of honouring its stars.
But Milkha Singh's achievements can do without such testimony. "The people of this country remember me. I may have started dyeing my beard but I am recognised at airports, railway stations -- anywhere. School textbooks have chapters on me, and somehow the sobriquet 'The Flying Sikh' has endured in people's memory," he says. Singh, however, has no complaints about the recognition given to him by the government. A Padma Shri and Arjuna Award winner, the legendary athlete who started his career on a Rs 10 wage went on to become director, sports, ministry of education in the Punjab government. "I have received more than I deserved."
It was a hard uphill climb for the refugee from Muzaffargarh in west Pakistan. The Partition massacres of 1947 took the lives of his parents and Singh was rejected by the army thrice. He subsequently enrolled in the army's electrical mechanical engineering branch in 1952 when his brother Malkhan Singh put in a word for him, and experienced his first sport outing at its athletics meet a fortnight later. "That was the first time I saw a ground bedecked with flags," reminisces Singh. "I later participated in a crosscountry race with 300 to 400 jawans. And sat down after the first half mile before starting again -- that was my first race."
Determined to be the best and realising his talent as a sprinter, the jawan took to training five hours every day. Motivated by his coach Havildar Gurdev Singh, he left it to the elements to hone his craft -- running on the hills, the sands of the Yamuna river, and against the speed of a metre gauge train. He says so intense was his training that very often he vomitted blood and would collapse in exhaustion.
Every morning Milkha Singh still goes for a jog by the Sukhna lake in Chandigarh. Most afternoons are spent playing golf and he uses the gym in his house regularly. "Discipline. You have to be disciplined if you want to be world class," he says, "That's what I tell my son Jeev. I give him the example of Tiger Woods, and hope he would bring the medal I couldn't." Jeev Milkha Singh, India's best golfer, was recently awarded the Arjuna Award and is striving to make a mark on the international golf circuit. Whether he does manage to bring the sporting glory that eluded his father, is yet to be seen. Till then, it is a disappointment that Milkha Singh will never forget. Forty years on, that failure in Rome still haunts him. 1960. The Olympics at Rome
After clocking a world record 45.8 seconds in one of the 400 metres preliminaries in France, Milkha Singh finished fourth in a photofinish in the Olympics final. The favourite for gold had missed the bronze. By a fraction... "Since it was a photofinish, the announcements were held up. The suspense was excruciating. I knew what my fatal error was: After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250 metres. I could not cover the lost ground after that -- and that cost me the race." "After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory," says Singh, "I kept crying for days." Dejected by his defeat, he made up his mind to give up sport. It was after much persuasion that he took to athletics again. Two years later, Milkha Singh won two medals at the 1962 Asian Games. But by then his golden period was over.
It was between 1958 and 1960 that Milkha Singh saw the height of glory. From setting a new record in the 200 and 400 metres at the Cuttack National Games, he won two gold medals at the Asian Games at Tokyo. The lean Sikh went on to win gold at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and was awarded the Helms trophy or being the best athlete in 1959.
Three years before the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Milkha Singh ran that one race which made President Ayub Khan christen him 'The Flying Sikh.' His defeat of Pakistan's leading athlete and winner of the 100 metres gold at the Tokyo Asiad, Abdul Khaliq, earned him India's bestknown sports sobriquet. "It has stuck since," he adds.
Thirty six years later, Britain's Ann Packer remembers him too. This time for his camaraderie. Jittery about her performance in the 800 metres against formidable French German and Hungarian athletes in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, Packer clearly remembered her encounter with Singh in the lift they shared on the day of her event. 'Ann you vill win,' she recounted Singh's words to a The Sunday Times journalist at her home in Cheshire recently. And vin she did. Packer clocked 2min 1.1 sec and set a new world record. Singh was among the first to congratulate her.
There are many who still congratulate Milkha Singh. "Sirji, I remember seeing you when I was a young recruit in the army," said Gairwar Singh as he chanced upon the former athlete getting into his car outside the Chandigarh Golf Club. Elated that Singh stops to shake hands with him, Gairwar Singh -- now a driver with a transport company in Delhi -- tells him about his interest in wrestling. "It is appreciation from the people that helps me go ahead at this age," Singh had earlier said at his home in Sector 8, Chandigarh. With two of his daughters married and one away in the United States, and his son travelling around the world regularly -- Singh says he enjoys the tranquility. Last year, he adopted the seven-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh who died in the Battle for Tiger Hill. The child is at a boarding school and Singh has taken on the responsibility of bringing him up.
"We owe it to those who have died for the honour of our country," he says, "Unlike our cricketers who have sold our country." Deeply disappointed with these ambassadors of India's most popular game, he firmly believes the guilty should be punished. "They cannot mock the aspirations of an entire nation," says Singh surveying the debris of many a fallen sporting icon.
Decades after he hung up his running shoes, one thing is for sure -- the Flying Sikh still stands tall. 'He has been a great source of inspiration'
Jeev Milkha Singh (Son of Milkha Singh) on his father
(Jeev Milkha Singh's interview by Onkar Singh )
Whenever I look at Milkha Singh, I see a dedicated and determined human being. He enforced strict discipline in me in particular and was very tough at times. He wanted me to become a better golfer. There is no way I can match him in any manner. I have always looked up to him for what he has done for the country. He is a great motivator and if anyone takes his advice he is bound to excel in life. I was not even born when he quit running. This is my biggest misfortune. Of course, I have seen him jogging on the golf course to warm up before a game. I have watched some of the documentaries made on him and I am really impressed. It was nice to see him in action. To realise that 'The Flying Sikh' is none else than my father. I wish I had seen him participate in a competitive race in a stadium though, than see him on film.
I was 11 when I went to boarding school in Shimla. I had hardly entered my classroom when I heard a boy telling another boy that I was Milkha Singh's son. When I heard this, I realised my father was a big name in Indian sport. Till then it had never ever dawned on me that he is a legend. He is a frank human being, a no-nonsense man, who does not take no for an answer. At 72, he still has the same drive. When I play golf with him, he wants to beat me. The zeal to be better than his opponent is still there. Like great athletes he believes there is nothing in the world you cannot achieve provided you have the will to do so.
If I were asked to list five of his great qualities, I would say he is honest, focussed and knows his goals. He has the determination to achieve his goals and has great motivation skills. Even an ordinary player can be moulded into a good one under his guidance. Last, but not least, he is a very disciplined human being. He says if you have achieved one goal, then you should set your eyes on higher goals and continue your drive to do better and better. "If you have become the best in Asia, then you should try to be the best in the world" is what he tells me all the time.
He wanted me to become an athlete. But I wanted to play golf like he did after giving up athletics. He told me he had nothing against my playing golf. But he told me, "Son it is no use playing golf if you are not going to be the best. Whatever game you may play, you have to prove that nobody can beat you." When I am not doing well, he encourages me to do well. He has been a great source of inspiration.
But even Milkha Singh has his regret. Even now, he cannot forget the 400 metres at the Rome Olympics where he finished fourth in one of the most competitive races -- all four runners broke the world record and finished the race in four minutes. He is going to die with this regret at the back of his mind. Sometimes he becomes very emotional about this. Milkha Singh is born once in many generations. I am lucky to have been born in his family and watch him from close quarters as his son.
One More Article about Flying Sikh Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh can be described as one of the most extraordinary athletes of our times. Milkha Singh was a genius and a genius is never trained. Without any formal training, without any financial reward and without any emotional support (he lost his parents during Partition and he had only an elder brother and a sister to look for help) Milkha Singh took on the greatest athletes of his time and proved himself as good if not better. The burst of speed with which he broke the previous Olympic Games record of 5.9 seconds in 400 meters is now a part of folk lore in Punjab. The fairy tale is repeated as part of Punjab's rich heritage. Milkha is no less popular than Pele in Brazil and Maradona in Argentina. Generation after generation in India will remember fondly his exploits with which he set the tracks ablaze whenever and wherever he ran. Rarely has it happened in the Olympic history when so many athletes went on to break the greatest race of his time, this he had to, since he had to, since he had on blocks with him world's greatest athletes of his time. Who would have dared to challenge their might, expect Milkha, who though respected them yet never feared them. He simply ran-SUPERB.
In the first heat in the Rome Olympics in 190 Milkha Singh clocked 47.6 seconds to finish second. In the second round heat Milkha cut off a few second to finish second to Karl Kaufman of Germany with a timing of 46.5 seconds. In the semifinal Milkha ran shoulder to shoulder with Ottis Davis of the USA to Finnish once again second but he further clipped a few more seconds from his early timing (45.9) .In the final Milkha Singh went off the blocks and took an early lead. Midway he slowed down a bit. This proved his undoing because other athletes went past him. Realising his miscalculation, Mikha drew out every ounce of energy for the final burst but failed to retrieve the lost ground. How fiercely was the race run by runners of such high order can be gauged from the fact that the winner Ottis Davis and Kaufman clocked 44.8 seconds to finish first and second in 400 meters while Mel Spence of South Africa timed 45.5 seconds to finish third. Milkha Singh who actually led the pack was untimely fourth, timing 45.6 seconds, a difference of just 0.1 second from the bronze. Thus upto the final he clocked 47.6, 46.5, 45.9 and 45.6 seconds, clocking a better timing in every outing.
Talking about the race Milkha Singh explained that he found himself running at a reckless speed in the initial stages of the race. Thus he tried to slow down a bit and this proved to be a big error of judgement on his part. Pitted against athletes of such high class only a small error separated the winner from the loser.
Twenty eight years have passed since Milkha hung his spikes yet no athlete has ever gone nearer Milkha's magical timing. He was a product of that time when no facilities existed, no coach available, no reward offered and no job secured, yet armed only with an iron will and the will to draw his own course, Milkha reversed the movement of the wheels of destiny.
Born at Layallpur, now in Pakistan, on October 8, 1935, Milkha Singh shot into limelight during the National Games at Patiala in 1956. Two years later he shattered the 200 and 400 meters record in the National games at Cuttack. The same year he established new records in the 200 and 400 meters in the Asian games at Tokyo. He followed it up with a gold in the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in 1958. How did he come to be known as the "Flying Sikh"?. Milkha Singh was participating in the Indo-Pak duel meet at Lahore when he outran Asia's most celebrated athlete in the 200 meters, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan. It was said that Milkha did not run the race but he flew.
Milkha Singh is sad to find that his exploits and achievements have not gone so far to inspire the younger generation. He is critical of the young athletes who aspire to reach the top via short cut and refuse to sweat out in the field. The government offers a number of facilities, there are a number of awards and scholarships, professional colleges offer seats to sportsman, jobs are secured for them, yet sportsmen of high order never emerge. It is the age of mediocrity.
Milkha Singh is, at present, Additional Director of Sports and Youth Programme, Education Department. Married to former international player, Nirmal, he has one son and three daughters. His son, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, is a top golfer and represented India in the Beijing Asian Games in 1990.
Hardly anyone knows in India why Milkha Singh was so popular in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The moment he would enter the stadium, the people would cheer him most enthusiastically. After all Milkha Singh was not the world's top athlete, no doubt he was among the top runners in the world. Though Rome saw the assembly of top athletes, yet no athlete could draw as much response from the crowd as Milkha Singh.
The real reason for Milkha Singh to be extremely popular among the people was that Milkha Singh had long hair and beard. People in Rome had not seen any athlete with a hair do on his head. They thought the man was a saint. So they wondered how a saint could run so fast. In addition to that none in Rome had any knowledge about Sikhism. The people often came to Milkha Singh and asked why he grew long hair. What is a Sikh, what is Sikhism, they hardly understood anything about the young religion. Milkha Singh enlightened them as much as he could. Yet the people remained as curious as ever.
Besides, Mulkha Singh had embarked on a European tour before landing in Rome. He had won a number of races on route to Rome. Since he had made some of the top athletes lick the dust in a number of competitions, his popularity had spread far and wide even before he reached Rome. In the Olympics too Milkha Singh ran true to his form and ruined the reputation of some of the established stars. Almost all Sikh athletes and sportsmen tied a handkerchief on their hair-do since 'patka' was unknown in those days. Thus Milkha Singh 's different headgear and his athletic exploits made him the darling of the crowd both on and off the track. Milkha Singh himself admits that he was popular because of being a Sikh. The long hair and the bread fascinated the Romans.
Milkha Singh had so much conditioned himself that at any given time and place he could run two races in a day. This superiority of strength had enabled him to win a number of races in the world. However, this superiority did not stand him in good stead at Rome for the simple reason that there was a gap of two days between semifinal and final races. This made Milkha Singh nervous. He felt very dispirited and off-colour. A day before the race Milkha Singh felt disturbed . But at that time a Punjab minister, Mr Umrao Singh, Who was the then president of the All-India Athletics Association,came into his room and took him out for fresh air. This eased the tension a bit and his mind was taken off the competition. The minister took him to some of the wonderful places of the city of Rome and later dropped him at his hotel.
Though Milkha Singh was feeling normal the next day, luck did not help him a bit. While other top athletes got better lanes, Milkha Singh was placed in the fifth. The lot put a German athlete in the first lane, the American in the second, a Pole in the third and South African in the fourth while the second German athlete was placed in the sixth lane. According to Milkha's assessment, the German was the weakest of all the other athletes. Thus being in the fifth lane, Milkha could only see the second German athlete. Thus a weak athlete in front was no advantage.
Therefore, Milkha Singh took off the blocks with a great burst of speed, and managed to lead the pack within 200 metres. But Milkha Singh was running at a dangerously fast speed, so he thought of slowing down a bit. As soon as he checked his speed, in a flash three runners, he failed to erase the deficit of five or six yards in the last 100 meters. Since he found it impossible to catch up with the first two athletes, Milkha Singh tried to outpace South Africa's Melcolm Spence whom he had beaten in the Commonwealth Games. But as ill-luck would have it, Spence got himself into the first two runners and Milkha found himself unable to catch up with. Almost all the first four athletes crossed the line one after another. It was a photo finish. Thus the announcement was held up. When the film was washed and the results were announced, the world of Milkha Singh lay shattered. In sheer despair Milkha Singh took to drinking to drown his disappointment. No matter how hard he tried he failed to remove the scar of defeat from his mind.
Two events stand out clear in the life of Milkha Singh, one the Partition when his parents were butchered, and second the defeat at Rome. Therefore, when an invitation came Milkha Singh's way to run in Pakistan, he was not enthusiastic about it. He hated the place for; he had lost his parents and other relatives in a traumatic experience. However, he was persuaded to run against Asia's best runner, Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan. Khaliq was the best runner that Pakistan had produced and he had a string of victories in the 200 metres in Asia.
But as the 200 meters race began, Milkha Singh outpaced the Pakistani from the word `go' and won in one of the most convincing manners. The people were wonder struck at the pace at which Milkha Singh had run the race. It was announced that Milkha had not run but had flown. It was during this race that Milkha Singh earned the `title' of the "Flying Sikh." The whole stadium was packed to capacity and the people had gathered to se the key contest between two of Asia's finest runners. So when the Indian runner breasted the tape, the 30,000 burqa-clad women uncovered their faces to have a clear view of the Sikh wonder athlete . Milkha Singh was taken to the VIP gallery and introduced to Pakistan President General Ayub who was himself present at the stadium in Lahore.
Milkha Singh was awarded the prestigious 'Padam Shri' by the President of India in 1958 when he won the gold medal in the British and Commonwealth Games till now.
All medals and trophies won by Milkha Singh, including the running shoes with which he broke the world record, blazers and uniforms have been donated by him to the National Sports Museum at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi.
Milkha Singh has keen desire to witness an Indian athlete win a gold Medal in the Olympic Games, a target which just slipped away from his hand by slight error of judgement.
After retirement Milkha Singh wants to set up an athletic academy in or around Chandigarh so that he can end the draught of top athletes.