The Flying Sikh

Khushwant Singh

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

The Flying Sikh

The National Games, where Milkha had set new records in many events were followed by an invite by the Pakistan government for an Indo-Pak sports meet. Milkha Singh, with images of savagery and human brutality still etched firmly in his mind, refused to go to Pakistan. Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru intervened in the matter and convinced Milkha Singh that his participation was important for the honor of the country. In no position to say no, Milkha arrived in Pakistan to headlines as ‘Indo-Pak Athlete Duel-Abdul Khaliq to meet Milkha Singh’. And the day arrived soon. The mega event witnessed by thirty thousand spectators was inaugurated by the president of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan, at the newly constructed Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore.

The main focus of the event was the duel between Milkha Singh and Abdul Khaliq, who was looking to avenge the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of Milkha in Tokyo. As things stood, Milkha had won the 400 meters and Khaliq the 100 meters, thus making the 200-meters race the cliffhanger. The winner of this race would decide who the greatest athlete was in the entire subcontinent. Now a pattern with Milkha to tense himself before any event, he once again reached the stadium on the day of the final event on a feverish note. ‘I remember telling myself that I had to win this race because a defeat in Pakistan would be worse than death,’ says Milkha.

The atmosphere at the stadium was electric but tilted heavily in favor of the home athlete Khaliq. ‘Long Live Pakistan. Long Live Khaliq’ were slogans that the crowds were shouting uninterrupted. Interestingly, near the racetrack stood a bunch of maulvis, with flowing beards, skullcaps and rosaries in their hands to bless Khaliq for the race. ‘May Allah be with you,’ they chanted.

Milkha, who couldn’t hold back his irritation at this one-sided approach looked at the maulvis and chided them, ‘Maulvi Sahebs, we are also the children of the same God. Don’t we also deserve the same blessings?’ This surprised the maulvis and one of them half-heartedly blessed Milkha too. Perhaps God listened to this particular wish because what happened next was a catharsis for Milkha.

Khaliq was soon seen lying pitifully on the ground weeping incessantly for he had just lost the 200-meters to Milkha Singh yet again. ‘You don’t run, but fly,’ said General Ayub Khan while congratulating Milkha Singh. Milkha Singh from now on would be known as the Flying Sikh. The same land that had given him the adage ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ had now conferred on him the title ‘The Flying Sikh’.

1960 Rome Olympics

The Rome Olympics of 1960 is a watershed event in Milkha’s career. They evoke mixed emotions of a loss, or, so near yet so far. The run-up to the games had not been the best as he lost a series of races which were a prelude to the Olympics in August. For the first time ever Milkha lost a four hundred-meter event at a tourney in Germany, which devastated his confidence. At another event in Cologne, Germany he had tied for the first place, which did not augur well with him. The scene soon shifted to UK, France, Soviet Union and finally the India team landed in Rome, with Milkha as their main medal hope.

The temperature in Rome had soared to almost forty degrees Celsius Also, the game schedule was different and there was a two-night gap between the semi-finals and finals. Milkha, who had made it to the final of the four hundred meters race found it difficult to stay sane for such a long period, a tendency that has been observed continuously. This long gap drained Milkha mentally, the pressure giving him sleepless nights. It was with this frame of mind that he took to the track. And thanks to this state of mind of the previous two days a fatal miscalculation followed. The weather and two sleepless nights made him make a move that would cost Milkha a medal.

In his autobiography The Race of My Life, Milkha describing the moment writes: ‘I started off being ahead of the others, and at the 250-meter mark, I was running so perilously that I decided to slow down in case I collapsed, a fatal decision I regret even to this day’.

Milkha unfortunately never could recover in the race and stood forth, even though he broke the record for the timing. Ottis David of USA had won the race. This race also marked a sort of end to Milkha Singh’s illustrious running career as he realized that the sun was setting on him.‘I knew that decline had set in and it was only appropriate that I leave the racing world on a high note,’ he claims. Also, a new life awaited the Flying Sikh: a government job as a sports administrator and matrimony.

Milkha’s Stint as a Sports Administrator

The then chief minister of Punjab, the dynamic Pratap Singh Kairon, was keen to develop sports in Punjab and convinced Milkha Singh to join the Punjab government to promote sports. Known to achieve what he set his eyes on, Pratap Singh Kairon took Milkha Singh to Prime Minister Nehru to request him to relieve Milkha from the army and at the disposal of the Punjab government. Nehru was reluctant as Milkha belonged to the army and it was the army that had helped him build his career. Kairon, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer and Milkha joined the Punjab government in 1961 as deputy director, sports, a post specially created for him.

It was a new life and it was difficult for Milkha to adjust to the change. Nevertheless, Milkha was soon running at the 1962 Jakarta Asian games. Milkha performed well and yet again won the 400-meter race and was part of 400-meter Indian relay team that won a gold. He finally hung up his boots in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics on a somber note.

Personal Tribulations and Achievements

During the same period in 1963, Milkha got married to Nimmi whom he had met first in 1956 in Colombo where she represented India as captain of the women’s volleyball team for a friendly match. He met her again in 1960 in Delhi and their acquaintance soon started blossoming into love. Their relationship went further when she joined the Punjab sports department as assistant director. The marriage was finally solemnized on 5 May 1963 but not without its own share of obstacles. Nimmi, who belonged to a Hindu family, was not acceptable to Milkha’s family. Milkha overcame all family hurdles and the newly wedded couple was soon on their way to Srinagar for their honeymoon.

Milkha is blessed with three daughters, Aleeza, Mona and Soni and one son, Chiranjeev Milkha Singh. Chiranjeev Milkha Singh is a top-notch professional golfer today and another Sikh icon. Milkha lives in Chandigarh and spends his time golfing and furthering the cause of sports. In protest against the way sports was being handled and in the manner awards are handed out he refused the Arjuna award in 2001.

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