Before the systematic path to the Indian team’s success in recent years, few athletes have managed to savour international glory, sans any support from the system. The most memorable of them is Milkha Singh, the Indian running champion who passed away earlier this week. Here’s an obituary of the great man beginning with his struggles as a young boy losing his parents during the India-Pakistan riots to the near miss of an Olympic medal.
“The track, to him, was like an open book in which Milkha Singh found the “meaning and purpose of life”. And what a life he made for himself.
Before his 91-year-old body lost to COVID-19 on Friday after fighting it for a month, Milkha won the kind of battles that not many would have survived, forget about living long enough to tell the world about them.
One of independent India’s biggest sporting icon, he was a tormented man but refused to let that come in the way of accomplishments which were unheard of in his era.
He saw his parents being butchered during partition, indulged in petty crimes to survive in refugee camps of Delhi, went to jail for those and failed three attempts at joining the Army.
Who could have thought a man like that would get the sobriquet of ‘The Flying Sikh’? But Milkha earned it and earned it with a master-class on how to be bigger and better than one’s circumstances.
He “revered” the track like “the sanctum sanctorum in a temple where the deity resided.” To him running was both his God and beloved as he created his own little fairy tale out of what what could have easily been a tale of horrors.
To talk of medals, the legendary athlete was a four-time Asian Games gold-medallist and the 1958 Commonwealth Games champion but his greatest performance was a near miss, the fourth place finish in the 400 metres final of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
His timing at the Italian capital remained the national record for 38 years and he was bestowed the Padma Shri in 1959.
But more than anything else, Milkha was the one who put Indian athletics on the world map by winning the gold in the then 440 yards race of the 1958 British and Commonwealth Games.
He became the first Indian athlete to win an individual gold in a Commonwealth Games, which led to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declaring a national holiday on his request.
Milkha put his career record at 77 wins out of 80 races. He also claimed to have bettered the ‘Olympics record’ of that time in a race in France, but with sketchy records available, it is difficult to confirm just like his actual date of birth which is officially November 20, 1929.
He lost the race of his life in the Rome Olympics, finishing the 400 metres final in 45.6 seconds, 0.1 second short of the bronze medal mark.”
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