The Flying Sikh

Khushwant Singh

Milkha Singh Former Indian Track and Field Sprinter (Gold Medalist)

The scene soon shifted to Patiala once again, where the final selection would take place. However, more action was to follow. Milkha, who had become a thorn in the flesh of other top athletes, was attacked by unidentified people the night before the selection race. A bunch of people pinned him down while he was asleep and covered his head with a blanket only to hit him with sticks on his legs. Those legs were what they wanted to inflict damage on. Though Milkha knew who possibly could have done it, he preferred to remain silent. Once again the medical advice was not to run, but Milkha had resolved that he would run in spite the bruises and the swelling on his legs. He would not be cowed down. He was made of a different mettle. ‘All the hardships that I had faced came as a flashback and this incident seemed so minor compared to what I had been through,’ says Milkha while explaining how he gathered the courage to achieve what he had set his mind on. Milkha ran the race and won it, and soon he was on his way to Melbourne. Waheguru had answered his prayers. On his blazer at the parade would be the Indian crest, which he had desired many years ago.

1956 Melbourne Olympics

The trip to Australia besides being Milkha’s first time on an aircraft was a cultural shock for him, which he found difficult to handle. Even though it was enchanting to be part of the Olympic village, the atmosphere overawed him. The music and the dances saw the Punjabi boys break into Bhangra and he found it amusing when he attracted extra attention because of his turban. He also couldn’t figure out why people would thrust a small book and a pen in front of him, and only much later did he realize it was for his autograph. The Melbourne Olympics besides giving Milkha international sporting exposure was a damp squib vis-à-vis his performance. He was eliminated in the heats itself. He was back on the flight to New Delhi sans any medal. He had fared poorly against the world-class athletes and understood the kind of grit and determination it took to become one.


Milkha, having realized that his success lay in very strong discipline, practice and perseverance decided to focus on these three things to make his mark in running. ‘Running had become my God, my religion and my beloved,’ says Milkha as we chat amidst many distractions. His biopic is about to be released and there are many congratulatory messages flowing. But what deserved a biopic is yet to follow as Milkha took his practice to the next level. At the crack of dawn, he would get into his sports gear and run three miles cross-country with his coach. He followed a similar rigorous routine in the evening. Cold, heat or rain did not deter him as he kept up his training 365 days a year, building on his stamina, and mental make-up. For building up his stamina he would go to the extent of running on sand or running up and down mountain slopes. He vividly recalls those days, especially the practice in the National Stadium under the scorching sun of the months of May and June. ‘There were times when I would collapse and everybody would think I am dead, but I would desperately call out to god and plead “waheguru save me this time, I will never repeat this again.” Milkha also concentrated on his diet and avoided alcohol, drugs, caffeine, smoking and late nights. During this phase of training Milkha Singh also got a new coach, Ranbir Singh.

All of Milkha’s efforts had started bearing the desired result and by 1957 he had made a mark for himself in India, especially within the army. He now had an unbroken record of victories, which included establishing new records. One such record that created a stir was at the 1957 National Games in Cuttack. Running 200 meters and 400 meters, he had clocked 46.2 seconds in the latter race, which was quicker than the Asian record. The record, which created quite a stir in the Asian athletic world, was too soon set the stage for the 1958 Tokyo, Asian Games.

Tokyo Asian Games 1958

The India team, with Milkha as its main medal hope, left for Tokyo in May of 1958. When the team landed in Tokyo the media, which had gathered in large droves was looking out forMilkha to write their story of the day. Ashwani Kumar, who was India’s chef de mission, presented India’s rising star to the media with the words: ‘This is Milkha Singh.’ Milkha also by now had a new coach in Dr.Howard. An American, Dr. Howard taught Milkha advanced techniques while taking a start before the dash.

The day of the 400-meter race, which was Milkha’s main event, dawned. It was the day following the opening of the games, which had been declared open by Emperor Hirohito in an impressive ceremony.

Khushwant Singh
  • Insightful write-up dear Sir
    Very much needed. My respect and regards