Its been decades since Milkha Singh retired but till today, very few Indian sprinters have come close to matching his calibre and the rich legacy that he left behind. Hailed as one of the greatest athletes the country has ever produced, Singh’s achievements have been well-documented and even now, he remains a big inspiration for sportsmen in India.
He ran many memorable races in his career and despite not being able to win an Olympic medal in his career, The Flying Sikh, as he is popularly known, is best remembered for his the 400-metre race at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome where he became the first Indian male to reach the final of an Olympic event.
Singh, one of the favourites, was leading that race but eventually missed out on a podium-finish after trailing by 0.1 seconds. Despite finishing fourth, Singh would go on to set a new national record which was untouched for almost 40 years. However, not many might be aware that he was also the first athlete to bag a Commonwealth Games gold for India, achieving the feat during the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
Wrestler Lila Ram secured another gold for India in the men’s heavyweight category during the 1958 Games but Milkha’s first commonwealth gold was truly a watershed moment in Indian sporting history, celebrated and lauded by millions back home.
The importance of Singh’s triumph can be underlined by the fact the country had to wait for another 52 years to achieve another gold in the track and field category, when Krishna Poonia won the women’s discus throw during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
The journey for him to get there was not an easy one. Born in a Sikh family in Punjab’s Govindpura village (now in Pakistan), among 14 other siblings, Singh endured a tragic childhood. He witnessed the massacre of his parents and few other siblings during the riots preceding the partition in 1947. He escaped the violence with a group of other boys before fleeing to Delhi, where he initially lived for a few years with a relative.
But it wasn’t until that he joined the Indian Army in 1951 (after two previous failed attempts) that his talent for running was discovered. With the guidance of his instructor, the first race Singh competed in was a cross-country one which included 400 other soldiers. Although he finished sixth, it was a sign of things to come.
He was later converted into a 400-metre sprinter by chance. It happened when his Army unit required a runner during an Inter-Services meet and after being approached by his commander, Singh agreed. Within five years, he would go on to make his first Olympic appearance at the 1958 Melbourne Games.
However, it ended on a bitter note as he crashed out of the heats itself. That disappointment did not deter Singh who would go on to fulfill his potential during the coming years. Between 1958-’60, he enjoyed his best years on the field track and made a mark at the national and Asian level.
The big race
Before his triumph at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, he created a new record in the 200 and 400 metres at the National Games in Cuttack. Later on that year, he also clinched two gold medals at the Asian Games in Tokyo.
When he went to Cardiff to compete in the 440 yards race, there weren’t many who were aware of his talent. There was pressure on him to only compete with South Africa’s Malcolm Spence, a world-class competitor who was hard to beat at that time but also shoulder the responsibility of fellow soldiers and million other people supporting him back home.
There were plenty who had come to watch the race being held at the Cardiff Arms Park but there was hardly any support for the Indian contingent. Among the few Indians present at the venue was Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Singh said his ritualistic prayer before he took the track. Once the race began, he ran his heart out, covering the first 350 yards of the race as fast as he could.
Singh, who was running in the outer lane, built up a strong lead, even overtaking Spence. But as he was nearing the finish line, the South African was just closing down on him and threatening to overtake him. It was proving to be an edge-of-the-seat contest that could pan out either way but Singh went all out to keep his lead intact and win it in stunning fashion.
He clocked 46.6 seconds, 0.3 seconds ahead of Spence while Charles Terrence Lobo of Canada finished third with 47 seconds. He had tears in his eyes after the race and was overwhelmed as the national anthem was played at the Commonwealth Games for the first time.
“I was not sure I could win a gold at the Commonwealth Games. I never had that kind of faith because I was competing with world record holder Spence of South Africa. He was the best runner at the time in 400m,” Singh told The Times of India, reflecting on his triumph.
“I will give credit (for the gold which I eventually won) to my American coach Dr Arthur W Howard. who planned the entire race strategy. The coach told me that Spence would run the first 300-350m slowly (even then his pace was good) and beat his rivals to the tape in the final stretch.
“I went all out from the start, running very fast till the last 50m. And, just as Dr Howard said, Spence realised that ‘Singh had gone too far ahead’. It was obvious to me that Spence had forgotten his own race strategy as he tried to catch up with me. He ran fast and in the end, he was about a foot behind me. He was close to my shoulders till the very end but couldn’t beat me. I finished in 46.6 seconds and he timed 46.9 seconds,” he added.
When Vijay Lakshmi Pandit soon came forward to congratulate Singh, she informed him that her brother would offer him a reward for his achievement. The sprinter could have asked for anything but he made an odd request, asking Jawaharlal Nehru to declare a government holiday, which the Prime Minister accepted.
Speaking about his decision, Singh said: “The gold medal was a big moment for India and I got calls and messages from a lot of people including Prime Minister Pandit Nehruji. He asked me, ‘Milkha, what do you want?’ At that time, I didn’t know what to ask. I could have asked for 200 acres of land or houses in Delhi. I finally asked for one day’s holiday in India.”
Since that race, 180 other athletes have managed to bring Commonwealth gold for the country but Singh’s achievement will always remain a special chapter in the annals of Indian sporting history.
Watch his historic race here: