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Vol. XXXI No. 6, July 1-15, 2021

Meeting up with ‘The Flying Sikh’ in Madras

by Partab Ramchand

Meeting up with your sporting heroes is the dream of every schoolboy. I was no different. I was at school when ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh was at the peak of his career from the late 50s to the early 60s and not unexpectedly I installed him firmly as one of my boyhood heroes. I followed his exploits right from the time he won the gold medal in the 440 yards during the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in 1958 followed by his two golds in the 200 and 400 metres at the Asian Games in Tokyo the same year.

Two years later I heard with bated breath on radio the commentary on the 400 metres final at the Rome Olympics. Like millions of Indians I too prayed for Milkha to win a medal and was almost in tears when he finished in fourth place just 0.1 seconds behind the bronze medalist Malcolm Spence of South Africa. I read reports how Milkha had openly wept at narrowly missing the medal he had striven for so much even as he thought seriously of retiring from the sport. Years of practice beyond the limits of human endeavour had helped peak his running skills to the point where he had hoped to win a medal for his country and then to miss it by the narrowest of margins was enough to make the lion-hearted Sikh down hearted. The story of the heart break at Rome has been told and retold umpteen times over the past 60 years. If some triumphs are part of sporting folklore this would be at the top of the list when it comes to chronicling the saddest episodes in Indian sporting history.

The-Flying-Sikh

Fortunately however he was persuaded to continue and so we had a Milkha double gold medal in the 400 metres and 4×400 metres relay at the 1962 Asian Games at Jakarta. I also remember how it was nothing short of a sensation when Makhan Singh his close friend and compatriot notched up a shock victory over Milkha in the 400 metres at the National Games in 1964. That was a clear signal that Milkha was finally over the hill after almost a decade of running at the topmost level and shortly afterwards he quit.

Having closely followed his career via the newspapers and the radio while fully comprehending the enormity of his achievements, I longed to meet him knowing fully well that this could well be just an unfulfilled dream. However in 1974 as luck would have it he came down to Madras when I was a sports reporter and there was an informal press meet at the Punjab Association premises on Peters Road wherein I did interact with him. To my pleasant surprise despite being one of the biggest names in Indian sporting history he was a picture of humility. I shall never forget his opening remarks made rather informally. “Friends I know your Hindi is not good, I also know my English is not good” sparking off peals of laughter all around. And then he continued with a mix of English and Hindi while making a fervent plea to the press to highlight any talented youngster’s achievement boldly in print via the headlines or photographs. “I know when I was young and when I saw my name in the papers for the first time how I was encouraged to aim for further laurels.” And while he did speak about his manifold achievements on the world stage there was a tendency to downplay them and talk only of the feats of others. That was the quintessential Milkha Singh.

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