Two figures were a source of inspiration for millions of sports fans growing up in India of the 1950s and ’60s. One was a professional free-style wrestler who won international championships. The towering figure of Dara Singh seemed to symbolise the raw power and physical strength of a country that had been reborn as an independent nation in 1947. We all dreamt of acquiring his physical prowess to vanquish our foes.
The second figure was an epitome of speed who became a national icon who could run so fast that many tales were created around his running skills; some true, some false, which have even today stayed with us. It was said that once Milkha Singh was chasing a thief but outran him in seconds
without realising it, and was left wondering where the thief had vanished.
The man who quenched a parched nation’s thirst for success was a child of the Partition and the horrors it unleashed on a land divided into two nations – India and Pakistan. He had fled his village in Pakistan, having lost both his parents to the insane fury of a violent mob. He had survived in utter poverty on the streets of Delhi.
From being jailed for travelling ticketless on a bus to becoming the world’s leading 400-metre runner, Milkha’s was a truly astounding story. He won almost everything that was to be won, except for a race that truly mattered – he finished fourth in the 1960 Olympics. But with no other Indian athlete coming close to qualifying for the Olympics, let alone participating, Milkha even in defeat became a heroic figure for us all.
Dara Singh was to later become a famous actor, and even on screen he would mash to pulp all the evil giants of this world. Milkha was provided with enough opportunities by the state to live a comfortable life.
He groomed his son, Jeev Milkha, to become a successful golfer. Athletics was still a poor man’s endeavour and Milkha had seen enough poverty to steer his son away from pursuing a sport where money was hard to come by.
The 1970s and ’80s may have seen a revolution taking place in India’s most popular and cash-rich sport – cricket – but the aspiring Milkhas of this world were still struggling.
The emergence of a Prakash Padukone, who became the world’s badminton champion, was an aberration in a sporting system that lacked infrastructure, money and encouragement. We were progressing, but the pace was so slow that the goal was nowhere within reach.
There was no Neeraj Chopra in sight, no Abhinav Bindra; no sporting victories to inspire and savour. A weightlifting medal or a tennis success in the Olympics did no justice to a nation of a billion people. The label of ‘underachiever’ in bold letters was pasted across the face of a nation whose economy was growing reasonably well.
No surprise that cricket was infiltrating more and more into places where hockey had once ruled, winning India three Olympic gold medals post 1947. Smaller towns and villages took to the bat and ball with greater vigour. Our test cricketers became figures to be idolised. Television screens amplified the effect, and with money pouring in we did not even realise when cricket from a mere sport had become a brand and the players brand ambassadors.
For a long while it seemed like cricket had just swept all other sports to the margins. An individual Olympic gold continued to elude us.
Then in 2008, the very calm, meditative figure of Abhinav Bindra achieved that feat. Shooting, which in our imagination was a sport of rajas and maharajas, was becoming a major medal harvester for India in the international arena. Abhinav Bindra and Rajyavardhan Rathore became the faces of a sport which is still not easy for the masses to gain access to.
India continued to live in the past and the Milkha story still pulsated in our memory. We did not have a single athlete like him, male or female, who could dominate the world stage. The sporting system over the years may have improved, but it was still starved of a dedicated cadre of people and money to support its growth.
The hinterlands of Haryana, where sport has penetrated the very conservative societal outlook, has given India a lot to hope for, be it in boxing, wrestling or athletics. Its women are at the forefront of this revolution.
In the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where India won 66 medals, 22 were won by athletes from Haryana. So it was to no one’s surprise that India’s first athletics gold medal in the Olympic Games was won by a Haryanvi.
Neeraj Chopra, at the age of 23, threw the javelin to a distance of 87.58 metres to rewrite a golden
chapter in Indian’s history in 2021. While Neeraj became the toast of a nation, the man himself had not forgotten what Milkha meant to India’s athletic fraternity. In his thanksgiving speech, he dedicated his medal to the “Flying Sikh”, who had passed away a couple of months earlier, on June 18, 2021, at the age of 91.
Neeraj, who recently won silver in the 2022 World Athletics Championships with a throw of 88.13 metres, is just 24. Like most athletes he has had to battle against difficult odds to overcome many hurdles to achieve his goal.
As the saying goes, one swallow does not a summer make. Similarly, one Chopra or a Bindra does not mean we are a sporting power at the world level.
Yes, we have our sports stars and incredible achievers to feel proud of, those like badminton player PV Sindhu for instance, who will win many more medals for us. But the fact that since 1947 India has just won two individual gold medals at the Olympics can be a very humbling thought.
While those who achieve success become brands for us and we shower them with money and fame, India is far from providing a favourable environment for aspiring sportspersons. It needs to invest more money and energy in its villages and towns to create an infrastructure and a sporting culture that could result in producing many more champions.
Pradeep Magazine is a cricket writer, columnist and former sports editor. He is a fellow of the New India Foundation, whose book Not Quite Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey through Modern India, was published by HarperCollins in 2021.