New Delhi: Everyone knew that Milkha Singh was an extraordinary athlete. He brought many laurels to the nation with his spirited performances. There is no doubt that he was a champion sportsperson and he did it all at a time when there were very less training facilities in the country. His struggles are also seldom known.
As a Sikh boy from Kot Addu village in Punjab province (now in Pakistan), he was also rendered homeless during the partition in 1947. He was around 15 years old at that time. His family was killed during the riots at that time. He had seen his father dying in front of him. The mob had attacked his village. His father pleaded him to escape to save his life. His father had said, "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag." Incidentally, that was the title of the biopic made on him.
One can imagine his agony and the turmoil in his life. From there on, his life was not the same. That incident had displaced him from the place he belonged. Milkha had to struggle a lot during his teen years. He even fell into the wrong hands in an effort to earn living. But his indomitable spirit and never say die attitude kept him going. Milkha did some petty jobs to survive.
After three failed enrolments, Milkha was finally able to join the Indian Army in 1952. Indian Army became his home. It was there that he was introduced to running as a sport and finally began his career as athlete. The Indian Army's EME Centre at Secunderabad was an ideal breeding ground to hone his natural skills as an athlete.
Initially, the games at Indian Army proved to be very beneficial for him. The Brigade Games and an Inter Services Meet were initial opportunities for him. He proved his credentials there and rest they say is history.
"Army gave me a second life. For three or four years, after partition, I roamed around doing odd jobs. I always wanted to join the Army and I succeeded on my fourth attempt. It was in the Army that I got a chance to take part in the cross-country run. Army saw some talent in me and encouraged me. For Southern Command and later for Services, I won a number of races in 200 and 400 metres," he had said.
After proving his mettle at the Indian Army, Milkha participated in national games at Cuttack and Calcutta. Milkha was established as notable middle distance runner. Afterwards, he was ready for international success and glory. Milkha was able to bag medals in the 400 m events at both the Asian Games (1958 - Tokyo and 1962 - Jakarta) and Commonwealth Games (1958 – Cardiff).
Statistics suggest that Milkha won over 90 per cent of his competitive races (72-75 out of 80) at various international meets and became a dominant number one for almost a decade in his signature 400 m event.
While he was at his peak of powers, he was dubbed as favourites to win the 400 m race at 1960 Rome Olympics but he missed the bronze by a small margin. However, he was able to break an Olympics record (hand held timings) and proved to be an inspiration for Indian athletes to dream big in Olympics sports. However, Milkha found very difficult to cope with the pain of not being able to win a medal at the Olympics.
Milkha once shared, "I cried for many days after that loss. But Nehru ji (then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru) was very kind and told me that the nation was proud of me and I should not despair having given my best. Running on those cinder tracks (later replaced by the synthetic tracks from the 1968 Olympics) took out a lot of the athletes. We had to train harder and did not know how much training was enough. Wish we had these kinds of even tracks and today's guidance, in our days."
Milkha was a hero and did wonders for the country despite having the best of training facilities. As he himself said that he was not sure how much training was required to be successful on those tracks, we can imagine how hard it would be as he excelled against all odds. Milkha's story is very inspiring and it is something which can ignite a spark in you to do well in life.