Sports columnist Rohit Brijnath talks to the 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh, the finest athlete India has ever produced, ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
'He was always the almost hero'
Now in his 70s, voice still strong, Milkha Singh knows it's Olympic year, he knows journalists (like me) will call and ask him about that day 48 years ago and dredge up a memory so piercingly painful. He has won four Asian Games gold medals, and one Commonwealth Games gold, yet it is not his many victories but one failure that people ask about. He sighs. He speaks.
India has won a fistful of individual Olympic medals, bronzes by KD Jadhav (wrestling, 1952), Leander Paes (tennis, 1996), Karnam Malleswari (weightlifting, 2000) and a silver from Rajyavendra Singh Rathore (shooting, 2004). Yet Milkha's story of a bronze missed in Rome 1960, is the most irresistible, the one we return to constantly.
Perhaps because heartbreak, as a story, is often more powerful, and poignant, than triumph. Perhaps because in 2008 India expects medals, but then in 1960, in a country that had savoured independence for just 13 years, where facilities were few, contending for medals was a more romantic pursuit.
India's progress in sport has not yet manifested itself in medals, but its strides are quiet and surer. Last year swimmer Virdhawal Khade's parents, from Kolhapur in Maharashtra state, agreed to the once unthinkable: letting him delay his class 10 examinations to qualify for Beijing. He did.
Technology is no longer foreign to Indian athletes. Khade has been privileged to use Speedo's breakthrough LZR Racer suit. World champion shooter Abhinav Bindra has been hooking himself up to a machine that identifies what activity is going on in his brain when he is shooting well. As he told me: "The key is how to train that area of the mind so it is routine to get into that state."
Milkha's world bore no resemblance to this. With a straightforwardness that is immediately disarming, he says that when he joined the army, "I came from a remote village, I didn't know what running was, or the Olympics".
'I wasn't even scared of death'
Context gives Milkha's story its searing beauty, the environment in which he ran gives his tale uniqueness. PT Usha would lose Olympic bronze in 1984 by an even crueller margin, yet in a comparison of tragedies he wins because of where he came from, what he endured. Usha did not work less hard, but it's impossible to compete with a man whose parents were killed, some reports say in front of him, in the carnage of India's partition. Whose temporary home for a month was a platform on Delhi's railway station.
His beginnings as an athlete can be linked, he says, to a five-mile cross-country run that every jawan (soldier) had to run. The top 10 were to be given further training, and so he ran it, was stricken by a stomach pain after just half a mile, sat down, but then got up, telling himself, "I have to come in the top 10". He came sixth, he says. The legend had started.
He was told then to run 400 metres, whereupon he asked, "how long is that?"
"Ek round," they said. One round, he thought, could not be such a big deal.
He was not familiar with spikes. Nor a tracksuit. But what he had couldn't be manufactured in a factory. "Aag thah andar," he says in Hindi ("I had a fire inside").
Discipline, hard work, will power: he says the words with the devotion of a man nursing prayer beads. His own perseverance takes many forms, in the blood he reportedly urinated because he worked so hard, in the oxygen that was supposedly used to revive him after practice. In an interview in 1996, he told me: "My experience made me so hard that I wasn't even scared of death." But one story reflects his desire clearest.
In 1956, he journeyed to the Melbourne Olympics, just a novice who exited early in the heats. The 400-metre gold medallist that year was Charles Jenkins, and Milkha, taking with him an interpreter who spoke "tuta-phuta" (broken) English, met the American and asked for his training schedule.
'It was bad luck for India and Milkha Singh'
Come back after a few days, Jenkins told him. "So we went," says Milkha, "and he gave me his coaching schedule, for hill running, for sprints, for starts, for weights."
"And I decided unless I beat his record (46.7, hand-timed) I won't stop."
Two years after Melbourne, he did beat that time, in Cuttack, his run eliciting such disbelief that the track was measured again.
Four years after Melbourne, he was a medal contender at the Rome Olympics. He'd run and won so often around the world that he says he had 20 passports. He was ready, an athlete poised for his moment.
And this is when the story must be hard for him to tell, for however many times he tells it, the result never alters. He is always fourth. He is always .1 of a second too late. He is always the almost hero.
What happened in the 400 final? Was it the fact the final was held, for the first time since 1912, on a different day from the semis, and Milkha says "that killed me, I was alone thinking about the race, no one was allowed to meet me".
Was it, as he always says, that he went out too quick when the gun went off? "It went in my mind that I was running too fast and I may not finish." So he slowed, broke his rhythm, couldn't regain it. Goddamn it.
'Milkha gave India determination and pride'
"It was bad luck", says this proud man, "for India and Milkha Singh." And it was, for both nation and man in 1960 were trying to make themselves heard, be noticed, and perhaps this is why he still sits in the memory. In a land not given to nicknames, this Flying Sikh almost everyone Indian knows.
Milkha gave India medals in Asia, determination, pride, an unforgettable story and a terrific son called Jeev. One of these days, hopefully, India will give back to him by producing a runner who wins an Olympic medal. I think he'll like that.
Here is a selection of readers' comments
What a touching and beautiful story. When I was growing up in India, every four years the Olympics would come and with it would come the story of Milkha Singh told and re-told by parents, friends, newscasters. I would always think 'Thank god for Milkha Singh, we came close to winning'.
Padma Mahadevan, India
It was a pleasant surprise to read about Milkha; and what a coincidence that I was referring to him only recently, in a sitting, remembering my college days. It was in 1959 in Lahore I was in FC College 1st year. There was a triangular athletic meet between Pakistan, India, and Iran. Then Pakistan held six Asian records. The teams on both sides were the ones both of us have never had after. Two of them Milkha Singh and the other Makhan Singh were part of the team. When Milkha ran his 400 metres the crowd was spell bound. He was flying - undoubtedly. What a smooth and beautiful rhythm he had. Thank you, Milkha. Even though Pakistan won by a small margin, Milkha carried the crowd. Please pay my regards to Milkha. Tell him that he still carries his fans in Pakistan- and I was equally sorry that he missed his gold in 1960 Olympics.
Anwar Mohiuddin, Pakistan
A true champion and a real life hero. There is nothing more that can be asked from this legend. Many thanks for the article.
Rakesh Sumit, India
My father who is in his eighties attended the Rome Olympics as an official, and often talks with great sadness how he watched his fellow Indian lose the bronze medal at the finish line. A high school quarter miler himself, he would often describe in detail Milkha's race to me. Milkha will forever remain India's most famous track star.
Glen Desylva, USA
Very touching article. He is the real hero.
Vinod Surapaneni, USA
Inspirational story. One lesson it teaches us win or loose give it your best, no matter how adverse the circumstances are. Hats Off to Milkha Singh.
Amandeep Taneja, Canada
I am proud to recall my memories with Milka Singh. I ran the 800 meters with him at the Oval in Sri Lanka. He is a simple unassuming person, always ready to help and share his knowledge and experience with other athletes. He is a graceful runner. He just floats effortlessly. Happy to hear he is keeping good health.
K.S.Ananthan, Sri Lanka 800m 1962 National Champion
Thanks for this really beautiful article. Singh is a true hero indeed!
I find your title Almost Hero offensive. For every Indian, Milkha Singh is a genuine hero. I suggest you change the title.
Param Dubey, USA
My father has often talked of The Flying Sikh and would regale me with tales of how fast he ran. I always find his stories inspiring and motivational. As a youngster I ran quite a bit and would imagine myself in Milkha Singh's place at the start line getting ready to take off, it always gave me 'wings'! India needs athletes like him and I have no doubt that one day an Indian will win a medal for running in the Olympics, I hope and pray that day comes soon.
Gurpreet Singh Khaira, UK
Milkha Singh's story is a lesson to every sportsmen in Indian subcontinent - that how much they will have to work to get a medal. With NO training, NO special food, NO Government support, he ran and ran.
Yatan Veer Singh, India
I was amazed to read the story on Milkha Singh, not because I don't know about him but I never found stories on these "Great Heros" in the field of Athletics, in this era of cricket. Athletics is a sport in which we do not have much sponsors & money flowing in like other games, may be that's the reason people are not aware about it. Thank you BBC for coming up with the story of such great hero.
Ravneet Kaur, India
I think Milkha should have been the part of training and coaching youngsters but no one thought of tapping his potential.
Mohit Bansal, India
A very inspirational story. An effort deserving of gold. I wouldn't call this person an almost hero. Medal or no medal, he is a hero.
Mustafa Jamal, Pakistan
This story is always fresh no matter how many times it is told. Bravo Milkha Singh.
Karnail Singh Gill, Canada
Well written! The fact that Milkha Singh fought the odds, dreamt of Olympic medals and worked hard for it is what human spirit is all about. As, they say some of it is luck too. May be he lacked in that department.
Ravneet Brar, Canada
As far as I can remember, he was always a hero and always will be, no question of almost. He is a great inspiration for us all.
Carl Bhogal, UK
Milkha Singh and his achievements were a household word in the subcontinent in the fifties so much so that there was a standard joke around him before the start of a race Here's how it goes: Sports Reporter: Are you relaxing? Milkha Singh: No, No I am Milkha Singh. A truly Indian great athlete.
Ghouse, Sri Lanka
When I was growing up, my parents would often talk of Milka Singh in awe. They never met him, but were very proud of him. In villages he is still a legend. It's too bad that athletes now days don't live up to their own expectations.
JP Chohan, Canada
So what's great about Milkha. The best he ever did was fourth place in Rome.
You said it. He came fourth in Olympics. That is like 4th in the whole world. That too against all odds. That is the story of the spirit of mankind. That is the story of 'fire' in the belly. That is the story of courage, perseverance and dedication. And that is the greatness.
I was really touched by the Flying Sikh story. I had heard about it as a kid and being an athlete myself in the same field, I wish India can do more in promoting athletics the same way they do for cricket.
Kevin Alphonso, Syria
What an amazing man! What an inspiration! Milkha Singh's achievements still stand out and fills me with admiration. This unfortunately seems to be an era when the media usually celebrates the mediocre- famous only because of savvy PR and Marketing. This story is refreshing and shows real courage and endeavour.
Shona P, UK
Thank you for bringing the story. It has been forgotten. I wish India could build a monument to keep his dream alive. Thanks again
Inderpal Singh, USA
Great Athlete, for some of us there is no almost hero, he is a Hero and will be remembered as one for enduring the world around him whilst he reached and participated in the 1960 finals. Good article.
Rakesh Patel, UK
I am proud of our past. I have always respected my elders for what they have done for my freedom and spiritual enlightenment. Milkha Singhji is one of our glorious past that have taught us so much in life.
Yogesh Londhe, USA
India is not yet sophisticated enough to pick its athletes properly. It tends to depend on word of mouth, colleges, and connections or nepotism. In the process, the best athletes on the countryside are overlooked or totally missed. There is no tracking system in the schools in the countryside as is in the USA. Many potential promising individuals in India never will know how they could qualify to compete. By the time they do, they have already passed their prime.
Indian villages have lot of great athletes with awesome stamina. I myself have witnessed quite a few who can keep on running. It is a shame that no one is there to see and tap the potential.