With Indian athlete Milkha Singh’s biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, already making waves, his life is one compelling story waiting to be told.
Here are some interesting tidbits about the ‘flying Sikh`.
Milkha was eleven during the partition (1947) when his father was killed in the communal riots in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). His father’s last words to him were, “bhaag Milkha” (run for your life Milkha).
The 11-year-old Milkha clung onto a Delhi-bound train to save his life. When in Delhi, he did odd jobs to earn a living.
It was then that he developed the desire to get into the Indian Army, but was selected only after three failed attempts.
Milkha’s affinity for athletics was such that he practiced running during the night if there was a paucity of time due to his responsibilities.
Within years of joining the Army, Milkha had 200- and 400-metre records to his name. This opened doors for the ‘flying Sikh’ to represent India at the world stage.
Milkha was eliminated in the first round of 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and has been quoted saying, “The clear superiority of the others shocked me but at the same time it inspired me.”
Not one to be discouraged by the loss, Milkha mustered the courage to ask American athlete Charles Jenkins (winner of 400 metres race) for help. Milkha has gone on record to thank the training schedule written by Jenkins for his successes later on.
Consumed by the dream to bring laurels for India, Milkha went about practicing like a man possessed for the next four years. He ran barefoot, often climbing steep hills and racing against trains. The rigours of training took such a toll on the man that at the end of some training sessions he was left spitting blood.
Milkha’s pursuit of the Olympic medal looked on course as he set new records in the 200 and 400 metres at the Cuttack National Games. He bagged two gold medals at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo and went on to win the gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Now only the Olympic medal eluded him.
Milkha reigned supreme during this period, and bagged America’s Helms trophy for being the best 400 metre runner of 1959.
In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Milkha shone through the qualifiers and was tipped to win the silver—only the legendary American Otis Davis was considered better than him. But, for the twist in the tale.
In the penultimate race, Milkha led the pack for the first 250 metres or so, but it was then that he slowed a few paces and glanced back to take a stock of his competitors. This fraction of a second was time enough for three to overtake him. Milkha has been quoted as saying that he ‘desperately tried to catch up at least with the man in the third place (Spence of South Africa whom he had defeated earlier).
Milkha finished joint third along with Spence, but a photo-finish dashed his hopes of a bronze. He was edged out by a millisecond. His timing was still good enough to better the Olympics record. The first two runners had broken the world record.
This defeat sent Milkha into depression, but he still managed to retain his 400 metre gold at 1962 Asian Games despite the odds. His son, ace golfer, Jeev Milkha Singh, went on record to say that his father would ‘die with the regret`.
Milkha, a recipient of the Padma Shri in 1958, refused to accept the Arjuna award in 2001, saying it came `40 years too late`.
When makers of his biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag approached him with the rights, Milkha reportedly sold them the rights for a token of Re 1.