Interview: Milkha Singh on Milkha Singh - part II
When did the world come to know Milkha Singh? What went wrong in Rome? Where is the next Milkha Singh? All this and more from the man himself.
(Continuing after Part I) Asian Games, Tokyo, 1958. I was itching to jump to that, but held myself back. It was equally important to know when did it all begin. That's how I continued.
When did you realise that you can become an athlete?
MS: The credit for that goes to the Indian Army. Coaches identify runners and turn them into athletes. But before that, during my childhood, I used to walk to school bare feet, and sometimes run. It was 10 km away. That hardened me. And then when I joined Army, they realised that this man can run. During training, every jawan is asked to run a cross-country race, from where the coaches pick potential athletes who go on to represent Services.
When did the world start knowing Milkha Singh?
MS: In 1958, I went to the Asian Games (Tokyo) for the first time, and I won there. I won the 200m and 400m and became Asia's best athlete. But nobody knew Milkha Singh at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. It was an assembly of world class athletes there. Commonwealth Games are next to the Olympics. So when I won, the reaction was unbelievable. There were stories about a village man running bare feet, an athlete who doesn't know how to spell 'athletics', how such a runner beat the world's best. They train their athletes scientifically, and I was absolutely raw.
Then came the 1960 Rome Olympics, and you lost bronze in a photo-finish. How did Milkha Singh lose and how he handled it?
MS: I made a mistake (while running the 400m final in Rome). I should have run the complete race at the same pace, in same rhythm. But I changed it and that proved to be the difference. I won't forget that loss till my last breath. Still, when I think of that moment, I feel the pain. I used to train for 12 months, and when you lose after putting in such an effort, it causes irreparable damage. I can never forget that moment.
Did you ever feel, after losing the 400m final at Rome, that you should have run the 200m instead?
MS: A medal was definite if I would have run 200m, but my favourite event was 400m. I ran 80 races and won 77 of those. People had complete faith that Milkha Singh will win the 400m. But 200m, I would have definitely won. The timing that the 200m winner clocked, I had run faster than that many times.
Very few people know about the contribution of Dr. Arthur W Howard in shaping up Milkha Singh. Can you introduce us to him?
MS: Dr. Howard is the person who helped me win the 400m gold at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. He planned the strategy that how should I approach the final race.
But we don't find any mention of Dr. Howard in 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'?
MS: I can't forget the contribution of Dr. Howard. But the movie was about how Milkha Singh became an athlete. That is what the film talks about. First it was Hawaldar Gurdev Singh who recognised my talent, then it was coach Ranbir Singh and after that Mr. JS Saini.
Carl Lewis called you after watching 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'. What did he say?
MS: He said, "I'm surprised." They undergo scientific training, but when he came to know, through the movie, that Milkha Singh used to train and compete bare feet, with not so highly qualified coaches, he was in awe. He went to watch the movie with an Indian friend, who explained him all that played on the screen. Then he called me.
It's been decades since Milkha Singh hung up his spikes. Still we haven't been able to produce another runner like you. Where are we lacking?
MS: We need to follow China's example. I appreciate them because they have done what they promised. They said they can be No. 1 and they achieved their goal. And I am saying this because I've seen it with my own eyes when I went there with my son, who was playing a tournament at that time. I used to visit their sports academies. In one word, their planning, preparation and training is just 'outstanding'.
India has all the facilities today, but we lack in sincerity and hard work. Without that, it's impossible to produce results. Cricket is dominating every sport. Because of that the standard of other sports in India has gone down. I blame the media as well for that.
You could have done that during your stint in sports administration. Where did it go wrong?
MS: Every human being has some limitations. Like when I was director of sports in the Punjab government, I tried to produce international athletes. I opened sports wings. I told them talented athletes should be kept under one roof with their education, food, lodging and training all taken care of. Regular tests to gauge improvement should be done. I introduced all these things. The first sports school in Punjab came up when I was the director of sports, which followed the same module I just told you. The results were amazing. We produced international hockey players and there was noticeable improvement in the standards of athletics and basketball. But the problem is that athletes in India first want to take care of their future by securing a job. I don't blame them as it's natural to feel that way. Employers like Tata, Indian Army, Railways, etc. approach you to play for them. There are not many opportunities in Punjab, so whichever athletes gets it, leaves the academy. But after that nobody remembers who trained those athletes. Once an athlete starts playing for an employer and starts doing well, the credit always goes to the employer. Nobody remembers the academy that trained him.
Cases of Indian athletes getting caught for doping are on the rise. Do you think lack of success is leading to desperation or is it lack of knowledge?
MS: Yes, there is lack of knowledge for sure, which puts the responsibility on coaches, physios, doctors and the association, to educate athletes. If suppose I am the head of an association, it's my duty to ensure athletes are not indulging in drugs and are educated properly on diet and nutrition.
Finally sir, any message to the young generation, especially sportspersons.
MS: Put your heart and soul into whatever you do. With determination and will power nothing is impossible. And for [sports] administrators, I don't mind them holding office for 40-50 years. Their sole aim should be to produce positive results. Collective effort will definitely lead us to that.