Milkha Singh — The Flying Sikh

Published in THE NEWS (A leading English language Pakistani daily) on 07/07/13

The Bollywood movie ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’ hitting the world screens in a few days depicts the life of the legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh, who was fourth in the 400 metres at the 1960 Olympics. The Milkha saga is tailor made for the celluloid.

He was eleven when made to run for his life. Having seen his parents and other relatives slain in front of him in the aftermath of the partition in 1947 in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, then called Lyallpur, Milkha escaped to India by hanging onto a Delhi-bound train. After roaming the streets of Delhi for a few years and doing menial jobs, Milkha joined the Indian Army, a decision that changes his life. Sports have always been an essential part of the army routine. The young Sikh soon discovered that short distance running, 400 and 200 metres, was his forte. Soon he was the best in his unit.

In a big services meet, Milkha saw some athletes who had India written on their vests. On his enquiry, he was told, “These army men have been representing India in international meets as they are the national champions in their respective events.”

That day Milkha set his sights on earning an India vest. He got fully focused. Every day, he ran for hours. If due to duty commitments he couldn’t find time during the day, he practised during night. Fellow soldiers would keep the dinner.

Within a couple of years, he had broken the national records for both 400 & 200 metres and Milkha was representing his country in the biggest event.

At the 1956 Olympics, Milkha got eliminated in the first round and felt out of place. He said afterwards, “The clear superiority of the others shocked me but at the same time it inspired me.”

He gathered courage to ask American Charles Jenkins, the winner of the 400 metres, for guidance. “He was nice enough to write a training schedule for me.”

From then onwards, Milkha concentrated on his next goal — to excel at the international stage. His preparation included unconventional methods. The determined boy ran on the hills and on the sands of the river. He trained so vigorously that sometimes the training schedule would end up with Milkha vomiting blood.

He fully arrived at the international athletics’ scene at the 1958 Asian games. Milkha first won the 400 m, creating a new Asian record. Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq, also a Punjabi soldier, retained his 100 m title.

Now both were eyeing the 200m. An added incentive was the title of the best athlete of the Asiad 1958; one has to win at least two individual golds. Khaliq led the field all the way with Milkha just behind him. Just short of the finish line, Milkha made a sort of a dive and flung himself ahead of Khaliq to win the 200 m race and was declared the continent’s best athlete in the bargain.

The golden run continued. A few weeks later, Milkha triumphed again, at an even more competitive field — the Commonwealth Games. He beat a world class field to win the 400m — till date the only gold won by a male Indian athlete at the Commonwealth Games.

Next he set sight at the 1960 Olympics — his ultimate aim. In the year in between, Milkha competed in numerous meets in Europe, winning almost all of them. He was also awarded America’s Helms trophy for being the best 400m runner of 1959.

Milkha was in the form of his life at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He easily went through the preliminaries to reach the semi-final. The field at the Rome Olympics is widely acknowledged as the finest gathering of the 400m runners. In the lead up to the event, Milkha had beaten all of them with the exception of American Otis Davis.

In his semi-final, Milkha was second only to Davis. Most of the pundits predicted silver for him in the final. But Milkha had gold in his mind and that was how he started.  He made a flying start and after 250 metres, he was ahead of the rest. At that moment he did something which he deeply regrets even today. Milkha thought he was going at too fast a pace and might fizzle out towards the end. He slowed down a bit and even glanced back a little. That fraction of a second made all the difference; one by one, three went past Milkha. “I desperately tried to catch up at least with the man in the third place, the South African Spence, who I had beaten at the Commonwealth Games. As the race ended, we apparently finished equal.”

The announcement of the result was withheld for sometime as the official photo finish was awaited. Unfortunately, Milkha was fourth with the South African just edging him for the bronze.

Still, Milkha had broken the Olympics record — such was the strength of the field that day: the first two bettered the world record and the third and the fourth going past the Olympic record.

Milkha remains the only South Asian athlete to break an Olympic record.

But this was a scant consolation. Milkha remained immersed in sorrow for days. Even today this brings tears in his eyes.

His son Jeev Milkha, the highest ranked Indian golfer in the world, says, “Father is going to die with this regret at the back of his mind.”

He came out of it in the only way he could; competing in the meets again. He was good enough to retain the 400 m gold at the Asian Games of 1962. Farhan Akhtar plays the role of Milkha in the movie. He worked tirelessly for almost two years to get into the lean and muscular figure for the role and also to develop a running style akin to that of the great athlete.

Sonam Kapoor is the lead lady who portrays Milkha’s first girlfriend inspiring him to join army. He also had a little flirt with an Australian female athlete.

Pakistani actress Meesha Shaafi also acts in the movie.

The movie has beautiful tracks in the voice of luminous singers including Diyya Kumar, Shreya Ghosal, Daler Mehndi and our own Arif Lohar.

Milkha hopes the movie will inspire the youth to excel at sports in general and athletics in particular. One expects the Pakistani youth is also motivated by the fascinating tale of South Asia’s greatest male athlete who was not only born in this country but also got his most popular title — ‘the Flying Sikh’ — here.