'You will ask Milkha Singh the same questions four years later and I will have the same answers'

One of India's greatest athletes tells  V. Kumara Swamy  why he has watched the Rio Games with his head hung and his heart aching

  • Published 21.08.16
Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Milkha Singh has just one wish - which he also voiced in a documentary called the Flying Singh, shot in black-and-white by the Films Division of India, way back in 1970. "Before I die, I want to see an Indian win a gold medal in athletics at the Olympics," Singh, then 38, had said.

He still hopes for it, though he has started to despair. " Nahi hua to mere rooh ko shanti nahi milegi (If it doesn't happen, my soul will not rest in peace)," he says.

In the 46 years since then, Singh has watched every Olympic Games, and hoped to see the elusive medal. Even now, at the age of 85, he sits in his Sector 8 home in Chandigarh, watching the Games on television. "Our runners can't get beyond the heats these days. How can I expect a medal now," he asks.

The man who almost won a medal in the Games believes that the athletic arena is the "King of Olympics", and that no other sport comes near it. And it troubles him that Indian athletes are nowhere in the field. You can tell that he is low - a feeling compounded by a bout of viral fever.

"I have aged three years in the last two weeks," he sighs, and adds that his golfing handicap, at 16 now, may go up. The fever - along with India's "dismal show" in the Games - has also turned him into a recluse. Visitors hoping to meet him in his two-storey house - with a large garden surrounded by trees in a tony neighbourhood near Sukhna Lake - have had to return without seeing him.

Singh may well be India's greatest track and field athlete who won virtually every major world tournament in his time, except an Olympic medal, but there's little sign of his success in his living room, visitors have often noticed with surprise. There is not a single medal or trophy - not even the government's Padma Shri - in the showcases. On display, instead, are the honours bestowed on his golfer son, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh.

"I gave everything away, including the Helms World Trophy for being the world's best athlete in 1959, to the National Sports Museum, hoping that it would inspire youngsters to become like Milkha Singh," he says.

Singh often talks about himself in the third person, seemingly in a bid to detach the legend from the man. But the larger-than-life image - captured in the 2013 Bollywood film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - endures, the reason why he is being inundated by calls related to India's poor showing at the Rio Games.

"It's an absolute shame. Look at the size of the country and our performance. I am forced to hang my head in shame," he says. India, he believes, should now focus on young talent. "We should stop depending on older players. Abhinav Bindra, Sania Mirza and Leander Paes have been to so many Olympics. Why do we depend on them for medals? We should groom our younger players," he says.

He is happy for Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu, but fears that the medals that they won this week may override the much required "post mortem" of India's overall performance at the Games. " Sab in do bachcho ke peechhey chhip jaayenge - everybody will hide behind these two kids. Nobody will look at the larger picture. You will ask Milkha Singh the same questions four years later and I will have the same answers," he says.

But here's one question he may not have been asked earlier. What does he think about sports minister Vijay Goel's performance in Rio? "I don't want to name any individual, but a politician will always act like one. He will seek publicity no matter where he is," he replies.

Singh worries about politicians dominating sporting bodies. "If I had fought against Suresh Kalmadi or anybody today (to a post in a sports body), I don't think I would have won more than two or three votes. The system in India is rigged against sportsmen and we are all trapped in it," he says.

"Okay, let politicians enjoy the fruits of office," he says. "But at least hire professionals to guide the players. That is the least they can do if they really want our players to do well."

The few politicians who can make a difference to the world of sports, he rues, are not in the right place. He cites the case of Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Olympics silver medallist and minister of state for information and broadcasting. "I can't understand why he is not the sports minister. He is an accomplished Olympian and he will surely do what is right for sportsmen. If I meet the Prime Minister, I will definitely ask him this question," Singh says.

Perhaps, India does not have the funds that sportspeople need to shine? Shooter Bindra recently pointed out that Great Britain spent over US$7 million per medal and India had to match that to expect more medals.

Singh sounds irritated. He rattles off the names of a great many track and field athletes - Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, Sriram Singh, P.T. Usha and Anju Bobby George - who performed well at international levels, and with little government support.

"These people had talent; they worked hard and had the will power to succeed. Money cannot win you medals. You need these three ingredients the most. I can't see the fire to succeed in the eyes of many of our athletes," he adds.

Singh, clearly, had that fire. But then he had found a place for himself in the most trying of times. Young Milkha lost his parents in Lahore in the Partition riots, and came to Delhi in 1947, hidden under a pile of bodies in a ladies' compartment in a train. Within a decade, he was winning medals on the world stage.

Relentless hard work, he stresses, is the road to success. He saw that in sport academies in China, he says.

"Unless we adopt the Chinese method of training, we will continue to languish. Athletes there train until they almost drop dead. That is the secret of their success. That was also the secret of Milkha Singh's success," he says.

He used to train for six hours in the heat in the months of May and June in Delhi, vomiting blood because of excessive training, he recalls. "These days, our athletes fear injury and exhaustion. You cannot win if you live in fear."

He remembers those days when it was a luxury to eat a protein-rich non-vegetarian dish in the canteens run by the Indian government at stadiums across the country. "But these days, sportsmen want rewards from governments for every small achievement. I used to be so shy about asking anything from the government. I felt ashamed, but not the athletes these days. You cannot win consistently at the international level if you're looking to be rewarded by the government," he says.

He recalls how, after he had won the gold in the 400 metre race in the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, the first ever by an Indian, an excited Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then high commissioner of India to the United Kingdom, came running to him with a message from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

"Pandit Nehru was so happy that he wanted to know what I wanted as a reward for my achievement. I could have asked for anything and got it, but I asked for a holiday to be declared in India and he did," he chuckles.

Two years later, he was in Rome, for the 1960 Olympics, and running in the 400 metre race. With a flapping sheet of cloth with the number 171 emblazoned on it was pinned to his jersey, he finished fourth in a world record smashing, photo-finish race. He was 0.7 seconds behind the first and second placed winners and just 0.1 second behind the bronze medallist.

"Finishing fourth is the greatest pain one can experience and it lasts a lifetime," he says.

But Singh moved on. An army man to the core, he was happy training the Services team. But Punjab's chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon had other plans for him. He was poached from the Indian Army after an intervention by Nehru in 1963 and made assistant director of sports in Punjab.

"From a mere Rs 39.50 in the army, I was paid Rs 1,200 per month in my new job. But my focus was on improving the level of sports in Punjab," he recalls. He went on to open sports schools in Punjab, and trained several athletes.

He regrets that the tradition was not followed in Punjab, which once boasted of the best sportspeople in the country. "Young children these days do drugs and they become empty shells by the time they are in their twenties. How can they become world-class athletes," he asks.

For the sports contingent returning from Rio, he has some basic advice. "Stop talking and start working with a goal in mind," he says. And, someone, please make Milkha Singh's dream come true.


1950s: Singh joins the Indian Army in his fourth attempt; comes sixth in the mandatory five-mile cross-country
1956: Represents India in the Melbourne Olympics in 200 and 400 metre categories but does not get past the heats. That year’s gold medallist, American Charles Jenkins, notices him and shares his training schedule
1958: Singh sets the track ablaze in the National Games at Cuttack, wins gold in the Asian Games (Tokyo) and the Commonwealth Games (Cardiff)
1959: Is awarded the Padma Shri. Also promoted from sepoy to junior commissioned officer. Later, becomes director of sports in the Punjab Ministry of Education; holds post till 1988
1960: At the Rome Olympics breaks a track record, but narrowly loses the bronze. Persuaded by Jawaharlal Nehru, he races against Abdul Khaliq in Pakistan, wins and earns the sobriquet of the flying Sikh from General Ayub Khan
In his sporting career Singh wins 4 Asian Games gold medals and 1 Commonwealth Games gold
2001: Turns down the Arjuna Award for lifetime contribution, objects to being ‘clubbed’ with sportspersons nowhere near his level
2003: Sets up the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust to assist sportspersons in need of financial assistance