Asian Games 2018: 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh remembers his summer of 1958, historic Rome miss and more

How long does 0.1 second last? You get the drift, right? But honestly, just how long? For Milkha Singh, India’s greatest track athlete, the duration of a blink of a healthy human eye has lasted a lifetime. Painful paradox for the man who has striven to, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth the distance run.

Milkha Singh remembers the agony, and not for the first time in 58 years, recalls one of the three races he gallantly lost in an 80-race career. It also happens to be his most memorable run, arguably, of course. It’s tad unfair to call it a failure, but in a world obsessed with numbers and in a sport that drools over decimals, there’s hardly a more remorseless appraisal of the 45.60 seconds he took to run the 400 metres in 1960 Rome Olympics.

“I know beta ji, that I dropped a medal that day,” he says apologetically, impervious to my allusion that he need not revisit 6 September, 1960. The idea was to talk about the importance of falling short, but can the lessons learnt be discussed without dwelling over the fall itself? My bad.

It’s remarkable how Milkha reopens his wound so easily and so often, but then, for a man who witnessed murders of his parents and siblings, can any loss hurt enough? It does, actually. For it remains, as Milkha says, only the second occasion in his life when he wept. The other two instances are on either side of this race: the murder of his parents and the screening of his biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

It would, however, be sad to remember Milkha for his gladiatorial martyrdom at Stadio Olimpico alone. He is about victories too — over an orphaned adulthood, over the temptation to become a dacoit, over three rejections by the Indian army, and eventually over the tracks that went on to define him.

In 1952, when Milkha finally made it to army’s Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre in Secunderabad, and finished sixth in the cross-country race for new recruits, he unwittingly turned a corner in country’s abysmal athletics scene. That result, secured on the back of his daily, one-way 10-kilometre runs to school in undivided Punjab, was his introduction to stardom.

“I remember that race clearly. My stamina and endurance were quite good already, thanks to my 10-kilometre runs to school. In this cross-country race, I ran barefoot, and the ground beneath me burnt. So I would run as fast as I could, and jump to a patch of grass to cool my feet till the time other competitors could come close. So that’s how I completed the race.

“When the results were announced, they called my name on the sixth position. All the jawans cheered loudly for me and hoisted me on their shoulders. I said to myself, ‘What’s happening here? These guys barely know my name.’ But that’s Indian army for you.”

The transition from long-distance running to 400 metres was no less fortuitous. His unit needed someone to represent them at an Inter-Services meet, and Milkha’s Company Commander approached him with a question: Will you run 400 metres?

“Back then, I didn’t know what athletics were, what Olympics are, nothing. So when my Commander asked me if I would run 400 metres, I asked him, ‘How much is 400 metres?’

“He told me it was one-fourth of a mile; basically just one round of the field. I said, ‘I am a mile-runner, and you want me to do one lap. Easy!’ So that’s how 400 metres happened,” he says.

In 1956, he made it to India’s Melbourne-bound Olympics squad, but crashed out from the heats. The race was won by USA’s Charles Jenkins, in a hand-held time of 46.7 seconds. Milkha was intrigued.

“I thought, the man who has won this race is a human. If he can do it, why can’t me?”

There’s another word he frequently uses: Aag. Fire.

“I had this aag to do well, and I wanted to know everything Jenkins has done to get that gold. The problem was, I didn’t speak English.”

So Milkha took along a “matric pass” friend to Jenkins as a translator.

“That person spoke crooked English, but barely enough for Jenkins to understand. I asked for his training schedule, diet plan, everything.”

In the pre-internet world, Jenkins happily gave away his trade secret to Milkha on a sheet of paper, perhaps unaware that it would soon consume the young Sikh in coming years. Upon returning from Melbourne, Milkha scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper and placed it next to Guru Gobind Singh’s picture in his room. 46.7, it read.

The aag that Milkha referred to earlier consumed him, and beating the time of 46.7 seconds became his raison d'être. For next two years, he just ran.

“I was hell-bent to better Jenkins’ time, and I wouldn’t have cared had I died trying.”

“I followed Jenkins’ schedule to the last detail. It became the sole purpose of my life,” he says with a finality that comes from a suicidal lack of reason and rationale.

 Asian Games 2018: Flying Sikh Milkha Singh remembers his summer of 1958, historic Rome miss and more

Milkha Singh finished fourth in the men's 400m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics. AFP

There are tales of Milkha throwing up blood on the tracks and passing out due to exhaustion, and he doesn’t deny them. The aag became an inferno, and within two years, at the National Games in Cuttack, he eventually bettered Jenkins’ 46.7, clocking 46.6 in heats. National record.

That summer of 1958, in fact, remains the best year in Milkha’s career. Besides the 200m and 400m national records, he secured a golden double (200m and 400m) at the Asian Games in Tokyo, before ending the year as India’s first athlete to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

The 200m gold at the Asian Games came in a memorable photo-finish with Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq, with Milkha clinching the race by one-tenth of a second.

“I remember the scorn their (Pakistan’s) coach reacted with when our coach introduced me to him before the race. But after I won, Pakistanis were very gracious and they invited me to race in Lahore,” remembers Milkha.

Haunted by the memories of Partition, he initially refused to travel to Pakistan, and it took the persuasiveness of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to eventually convince him to go, and perhaps put his demons to rest.

“The Pakistanis offered me a memorable welcome. I entered Lahore via Wagah border in a decked, open jeep, and people had lined up on either side of the road with flags of both countries. It was so special.”

Milkha beat Khaliq in the 200-metre race, and at the podium, General Yahya Khan famously called him the ‘Flying Sikh’.

“He said, Milkha ji, you didn’t run in Pakistan, you flew. We would like to give you the title of Flying Sikh. So if people know me by that moniker, it’s all because of Pakistan’s generosity,” he says.

The same year he went to Rome Olympics as one of the medal contenders in the 400-metre race; perhaps the only time an Indian athlete took the tracks as one of the favourites. Milkha started strongly in Lane 5, and after leading the race for 250 metres, felt he was running too fast and needed to slow down.

That fleeting moment of indecision, engendered without doubt by the bubbling overnight anxiety and the absolute unprecedentedness of the occasion, were to sum up Milkha’s life.

US’ Otis Davis won the race after tying with Germany's Carl Kaufmann at 44.9 seconds, necessitating the need of a photo-finish. The automatic timing ruled Davis the winner by a margin of 0.01 seconds — 45.07 to Kaufmann’s 45.08. South Africa's Malcolm Spence completed the race in 45.50 seconds, 0.1 seconds faster than Milkha, to take the third spot.

Milkha broke the existing Olympic record of 45.9 seconds, held jointly by the Jamaican duo of George Rhoden and Herb McKenley from 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The problem, as The Age, noted in 2006, was that he was the fourth man to do so in the same race.

58 years have passed since that stray thought fatally crossed Milkha’s mind at 250 metres, but the anguish with which he remembers Rome 1960 is instructive of the expectations he had of himself, and of the aag that raged in him.

“It’s a pain that will end with my life,” he says.

He has a word of encouragement for Mohammed Anas Yahiya, the current national record holder in 400 metres (45.24 seconds) and Hima Das, the teenaged sensation who won gold at the Under-20 World Championships in Tampere, Finland last month.

“These kids are really impressive,” he says. “But for them to succeed, they need to prepare with the intensity with which I did. They need to keep that Olympic and world record timing in their mind each time they run, and their coaches must calibrate their improvement every 10 days. If they ever manage to win an Olympic medal, it will be a huge honour for the country.”

“My last wish is to see an Indian athlete winning an Olympic medal,” he says.

It’s a quote he has repeated religiously in every interview, hoping that someday, somewhere, it lights a fire in someone. That 0.1 second surely has lasted long enough.

Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 16:16:49 IST