By Qaiser Mohammad Ali
New Delhi: A glimpse into the stupendous athletics career of legendary Milkha Singh, who passed away on Friday aged 91, can be had from this mind boggling fact: his 400 metres Indian national record stood for 38 years and the 400m Asian record for 26 years. In 1960 in Rome, he came closest to winning an individual Olympic Games medal as an Indian, in 400m, eventually finishing fourth in a photo finish.
Milkha was one of the favourites to win the 400m gold in Rome. It was probably natural, too, as going into the Olympics, he is said to have won 77 out of 80 races, including the 1958 Commonwealth Games gold in 440 yards.
But one shortcoming probably cost Milkha an Olympic medal. He had a habit of looking at his opponents over his shoulder while running races, and when he did the same in Rome it was decisive, though he had led the race until 200m. Later he admitted that he had paid a heavy price for his habit.
Interestingly, Milkha broke the existing world record of 45.9 sec in Rome, and so the three who finished ahead of him. He finished fourth with a time of 45.6 seconds, as per a hand-held device, while an unofficial electronic timer at the games clocked him at 45.73 sec. This has been a point of contention, though.
Whatever the reality, Milkha emerged from Rome as the ‘Flying Sikh’. A legend was born.
In 1998, Paramjeet Singh broke Milkha’s Indian record at a national competition in Kolkata. But Milkha was not satisfied with the procedure of recording athletes’ timings in Kolkata. Paramjeet clocked 45.70 secs on a synthetic track while Singh had run on a cinder track in Rome.
Much before Paramjeet broke Milkha’s record, the legend had offered to give a Rs 2 lakh prize to anyone who broke his 400m record. But when Paramjeet did that, Milkha gave only Rs 1 lakh to him. Milkha later explained that the Rs 2 lakh prize was for breaking the record overseas while Paramjeet said that the legend hadn’t clarified that beforehand. That created some friction between the two.
Currently, Muhammed Anas of Kerala holds the 400m national record with a time of 45.24 seconds.
Until Rome 1960, no Indian had come so close to winning an individual Olympic medal; in hockey, though, India had been a dominant force.
Later, in 1984, P.T. Usha missed a bronze by a whisker in 400m hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. She clocked 55.42 seconds, and missed the bronze by a mere 0.01 sec.
Milkha’s 400m Asian record of 45.63 seconds stood for 26 years, before being broken by Susumu Takona of Japan.
That prize money episode aside, no one can take anything away from Milkha’s achievements in track and field – and the example he set for athletes that followed him. He won four gold medals at the Asian Games – two in 400m (1958 and 1962), one in 200m (1958), and one in 4x100m relay (1962).
Milkha was born in Layalpur, in the undivided India, and now in Pakistan. His love for athletics began after he enrolled himself with the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME) of the Indian Army in Delhi.
His talent blossomed while being with the Army. Fortunately for him, his officers encouraged him, and that would have played a role in him winning the 200m and 400m races at a Services Athletics Meet in 1955.
Milkha practiced on his own while with the Army and clinched gold medals in both 200m and 400m at the 1956 National Games in Patiala, and two years later at the Cuttack Nationals, setting national records in both races.
His sporting achievements won him kudos from the Army, and the Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri in 1959. The same year, he was awarded the prestigious Helms Award.
Milkha took premature retirement from the Army and took up the post of Deputy Director of Sports with the Punjab government.
Decades later, a Bollywood film was made on Milkha Singh, starring Farhan Akhtar.
Milkha died at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in Chandigarh, where he was being treated for Covid-related complications. Six days before he passed away, his wife, Nirmal, had died on June 13. A former India volleyball captain, she was 85, and she too succumbed to Covid and related complications.
The couple is survived by a son, ace golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, and three daughters. Jeev was the first Indian to break into the top 50 of the official world golf rankings in 2007.
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