Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Milkha Singh (c. 1931)

IN the blazing summer heat, two little boys are on their way to school. They are barefooted as their parents, being poor, can't buy shoes for them. Since the ground is too hot to walk, the boys are forced to run, and take shelter under the shade of the nearest tree. After a while, they run again till they find another tree. The cycle repeats until they reach their school at Kot Addu, another village about 10 km away from their own. The two friends hardly realise that they effectively run about 20 km every day, besides wading through two streams. It is perhaps this harsh routine that will make one of the boys run for his country in the Olympics a couple of decades on.

His immense popularity notwithstanding, very few know Milkha Singh the man. This tall and slim athlete grew up in a poor household in Gobindpura, Muzzaffargarh district, now in Pakistan. With the coming of independence, he lost his parents and three brothers in the genocide that followed Partition. He, however, managed to escape death by lying among the dead. Bearing immense hardship he finally reached New Delhi.

Having lost everything in life, he decided to join the Army, but was turned down because the authorities felt that he was too thin. However, when he tried again, he was selected in 1952.

As a jawan in Electrical Mechanical Engineering, Secunderabad, he reached the pinnacle of glory in athletics through sheer dedication and hard work. "What I am today," admits Milkha Singh, "is all thanks to the Army. It is the Army that discovered me, groomed me, and trained me. Before that I had not even heard of the Olympics or Asian Games. Havaldar Gurdev Singh was the one who groomed me, and trained me. That was all the training that I had. I set myself punishing schedules. I used to train so hard that several times I had to be carried home on a stretcher."

Milkha Singh shot into limelight when he took part in a race in 1954 in Patiala. The Maharajah of Patiala was on the look out for young sportspersons for the Melbourne Olympics. He was impressed with Milkha Singh's running action, and, thanks to him, he was sent for a coaching camp in Bangalore.

For a person who has been acknowledged as one of the top six athletes in the world after his success at the Tokyo Asian Games and in the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff, Milkha Singh is best remembered for his feat in the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he missed the bronze in a photo-finish with a timing of 45.6 seconds. In all, he ran about 80 international races and won 77. He won the coveted Helm's Award in 1959, and is the only Asian to be selected for participation in the first Earth Run sponsored by UNICEF. Incidentally, the title 'flying Sikh' was given to him by President Ayub Khan of Pakistan.

It was Nehru and Kairon who persuaded the Army to relieve him so that he could takeover as Deputy Director of Sports, Punjab. And in this capacity he introduced sports wings in many schools, and also trained a number of promising athletes. "But my influence on the young athletes ended at school level," he laments, "because soon they would get picked up by various organisations and private companies to perform for them. I no longer had any control over them."

In order to train young world-class athletes, Milkha Singh offered his services to the Athletics Federation of India. "All I asked for was eight years' time without any interference. But they did not show any interest. I wanted to start a sports academy here, but again all my plans were thwarted."

Unmindful of bureaucratic apathy, the tireless runner carries on with his work. He is married to the former volleyball champion, Nirmala. His son is a promising golfer, and one of his three daughters had done a doctorate in sports. Although he is well-placed in life, he hasn't forgotten people who have been less fortunate. Last year, he adopted the seven-year-old son of Havaldar Vikram Singh who sacrificed his life while trying to recapture Tiger Hill.


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