For Milkha Singh, running was not a sport. His earliest memories of running were tinged with struggle and horror. From the 10-km he ran everyday on his way back from school in Muzaffargarh in present-day Pakistan, to being entreated by his father to escape the 1947 Partition riots that left his family, including his parents dead, there would be few athletes for whom running was so closely intertwined with their lives. And it was running then that Singh used to leave the past behind and make a new life for himself as he became one of the first sporting icons of independent India.
For Milkha Singh, the journey to becoming a world-class athlete began by chance. When he was asked by Havaldar Gurdev Singh in circa 1951 to run a cross-country race as part of his military training, the young man in his early twenties did not know what a cross-country race was. But running in one for the first time, he recalled that he placed sixth. Impressed by the grit in his young Sikh protege, Gurdev Singh would ask him to run again, in the 400m. What is the 400m? Milkha Singh had asked Gurdev Singh. It’s just covering the whole ground once, the trainer is said to have told the young Singh. The rest, as they say, is history.
1958 Commonwealth Games, UK: Underdog Milkha Beats World Record Holder
By 1958, Milkha Singh was already a name to reckon with in the national athletics circuit. Two years earlier, he had gone to the Melbourne Olympics to run in the 200m and 400m competitions, but could not make it out of the heats. But he did make the trip count. He approached US athlete Charles Jenkins, the 400m champion in those days, for tips to improve his performance. The interview is described in a BBC story. Milkha Singh said that he went up to Jenkins accompanied by an interpreter and asked for the American’s training schedule. They were asked to come back after a few days and “he (Jenkins) gave me his coaching schedule, for hill running, for sprints, for starts, for weights," Milkha Singh told BBC. “And I decided unless I beat his record (which was of 46.7 seconds) I won’t stop." Two national records (set at the 1958 National Games in Cuttack in the 200m and 400m) and two gold medals at the Asian Games at Tokyo (in the same events) later, he would do just that, at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.
By that time, the world record holder in the 400m was the South African Malcolm Spence. A nervous Milkha Singh did not fancy his chances against his more famous rival. But he succeeded in getting the measure of him thanks to a crucial piece of advice from his then American coach, Dr Arthur Howard, who was the first deputy director of sports at the NIS, Patiala. Howard had a simple suggestion for Milkha Singh, “go all out". As he told the story to The Times Of India, “The coach told me that Spence would run the first 300-350m slowly and beat his rivals to to the tape in the final stretch. ‘You should go all out from the beginning because you have the stamina.’” And that is what Milkha Singh did and, as predicted by Howard, Spence forgot his strategy. Milkha Singh won that race in 46.6 seconds, shaving .1 seconds off his idol Jenkins’ time.
Reports say that when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called Milkha Singh to congratulate him and offer him a reward, he made a request for a national holiday in India.
1960 Pakistan: Milkha Beats Pak Great Abdul Khaliq, Earns The Moniker Of ‘Flying Sikh’
Pakistan held difficult memories for Milkha Singh, his youth and the bloodshed that had made him take shelter in India post Partition were still fresh in his mind when an invite came from the neigbouring country to participate in an athletic encounter: Milkha Singh versus Abdul Khaliq, who’d won the 100m at the Tokyo Asiad in 1958 but was pipped to the 200m title by the Indian athlete.
However, Milkha Singh initially did not want to go. As he told The Indian Express in 2013, “I refused because I couldn’t forget the night my parents had been killed in Pakistan." But word got to PM Nehru and after his urging, Milkha Singh agreed to make the trip. He said that when he reached Pakistan, he saw banners proclaiming “‘Milkha Singh aur Abdul Khaliq ki takkar, India-Pakistan ki takkar’". Describing the famous race, Milkha Singh said that Khaliq was faster off the blocks and took an early lead. But it was less than 100m left to go that he edged past Khaliq, as did a second Indian athlete, Makhan Singh. “The entire stadium was silent," Milkha Singh said in the interview.
It was while handing him the prize that the then Pakistan president General Ayub Khan whispered in Milkha Singh’s ear, “You didn’t run today, you flew." And that is how the ‘Flying Sikh’ was born that day.
1960, Rome Olympics: A Photo Finish And .1 Sec Between Fourth Place And Eternity
There are two things Milkha Singh had repeatedly said he would never forget. His parents’ death and the Rome Olympics 400m race, in which he placed fourth as independent India cam agonisingly close to its first Olympic track and field event. But it may be more correct to view it as a loss of gold and not bronze as the story is now told. At least that’s how Milkha Singh himself saw it. Because, going into the Olympics, he was among the world’s best in the 400m and was tipped for the top prize.
In his own words, “when I went to Rome I was considered the favourite by many experts. Many Indians had even placed heavy stakes on my winning the gold". But the anticipation and the burden of expectation weighed heavily on Milkha Singh. There was a two-day gap between the semi-final heats and the final race. Milkha Singh told The Indian Express that he “couldn’t sleep those two days" as he was “carrying the burden of expectations". Then, in the final, there was his “tactical blunder".
“I started the race very well and was leading at 250 metres. A strange thought came to my mind,‘am I running too fast? Will I be able to finish the race with this speed?’ So I slowed down and dropped my speed and the rhythm with which I was running," he told the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) in an interview. That proved to be a costly slip. “The other athletes who were trailing overtook me and I was left yards behind them. I went mad, and tried to cover up, but it was too late. I lost the bronze medal to Malcolm Spence of South Africa whom I had beaten in the 1958 Commonwealth Games," a recollection that he said always haunted him.
But even when he fell short of the podium, he managed to set a record. The first two athletes in that photo finish, Otis Davis of the US and Carl Kaufmann of the United Germany team, both set world record times, while Spence and Milkha Singh broke the pre-Games Olympic record of 45.9 seconds “with times of 45.5 and 45.6 seconds, respectively". Milkha Singh’s time was revised to 45.73 seconds employing modern techniques, but all the same that stood as an Indian national record for almost 40 years before it was broken in 1998 by Paramjit Singh, who clocked 45.7 seconds in the 400m at a national meet.