India’s athletic genius on his life’s most enduring passion and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

He’s 81 and even now Milkha Singh’s voice is strong, still carries that firm conviction. There was always something romantic, tragic about The Flying Sikh. Fleeing to India from Pakistan during the Partition after his family was massacred, racing trains for fun, outrunning the police when caught stealing, toiling to make a living, joining the Army, running to win that extra glass of milk, winning on the track…all these are now part of sporting history.

In the city as the brand ambassador of the Cochin International Half Marathon, Milkha Singh was the cynosure of all eyes. Crowds thronged to catch a glimpse of him and take photographs with the protagonist of the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In between lunch, camera bulbs, a queue waiting to pose with the star athlete, Milkha took time to speak to The Hindu MetroPlus.

He is the only Indian male athlete to win an individual athletics gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and his fourth place in the 400 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics remained a National record for nearly four decades.

“I’m telling you if Milkha Singh was born in this era, with the kind of hard work, I put in, no one would have broken my record in the next 100 years. I worked so hard,” says Milkha.

Crazy schedules

Milkha started running barefoot and for three years, even when he participated in the Army meets, this was how he ran. His training schedules were crazy, a sort of self-imposed penance. “We had no facilities. We began running barefoot, had no running shoes, no track suits, no money, no proper tracks, nothing at all. All that we had was fierce will-power, a will to work hard. We did that and reached where we are.”

Milkha’s mission in life was to excel in running. The track, as he always said, was ‘an open book, in which he could read the meaning and purpose of life’.

From the crack of dawn to night, no matter what the weather was, he trained, every day, all through the week.

No short cuts

“Today, youngsters want to become like Milkha Singh. They must realise that for 12 to 13 years I toiled before I ran in my first Olympics. Youngsters want to achieve everything fast, the short cut way. They want to achieve everything in a year and for this they resort to drugs too. This is not possible. They should work hard.”

Coaches played a very important role in Milkha’s life and career. Right from Havildar Gurudev Singh, who was first to motivate Milkha to work towards becoming a world-class athlete, to Baldev Singh, Ranbir Singh and Dr. Howard, coaches have been instrumental in forging Milkha’s career.

“Coaches, I think, should also work hard as they did during our time. Now, we have around 40,000 athletics coaches in India, but does anyone ask them about the results they have produced. My coaches were very sincere. The coach must be able to motivate, he must be behind the athlete egging him on and must be fully involved, 24 hours.”

Milkha feels that to achieve results, three agencies must get together. “If we want results, and here I will not blame the Government for they have provided all facilities possible, three agencies must be held responsible. They are the players, coaches and the associations. They must become serious, the Indian Olympic Association, must take the lead. There should be proper planning for the future. Look, there are so many disciplines that despite the best efforts of the Government they have failed to produce any notable result.”

In his career Milkha ran 80 races and won 77 of them, a record that has been debated since. He triumphed at four Asian Games and at numerous national and international events. Milkha’s time at the Rome Olympics 400m final, run on a cinder track, was a national record that stood until 1998 when Paramjit Singh bettered it on a synthetic track.

“I don’t see anyone in the near future who will achieve a notable result in Olympics. I cannot say what will happen after eight or 10 years. I hope and pray this will happen.”

Rome heartbreak

Two moments that haunt him to this day are the horrors of the Partition and the Rome Olympics race. Milkha was surging ahead at the 250-metre mark when he decided to slow down fearing that he might collapse at that speed. “I even looked back, maybe a side glance. It was a habit. But that split second made the difference at the tape. I could not catch up. See, those days we had no psychologists who could have helped me get over this awful habit, nor did the coaches consider this serious—a mistake that I will relive till my last breath.”

The new Milkha

The success of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has given Milkha new recognition. People, who considered him as just one of those Indian athletes, now look at him differently. They journeyed, through Farhan Akhtar who played Milkha in the film, into the psyche of this great athlete.

“I think Farhan (Akhtar) has done a brilliant job. I used to go to Mumbai every 15 days or so and talk to him about my style, like how I used to take the start, how I used to do hill running, training on sand and cross country. And the way he did that in the film was amazing. He worked hard putting in more than two hours of running every day. In school, Farhan was running the 100 metres in 12 seconds. At the end of the training he was doing it in 11 secs, which is a big thing.”

Son, a golf champ

Milkha is married to Nirmal Kaur, former Indian volleyball captain, and they have two daughters and a son, Jeev Milkha Singh, champion golfer. “I think mine is the only Indian family with two Padma Shri awardees,” he says with a smile that flashes momentarily on his battle-scarred face.

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