Kolkata: At 91 years old, Milkha Singh led a full life. However, if the Indians woke up on Saturday with a deep sense of loss – thanks to the way the end came. These were again post-COVID complications and in less than a week after his wife Nirmal died of the virus.
Experience tells us that the relevance of a sports legend often diminishes with age – only to rise again at the time of his or her death. With someone like the Milkha Singh from ‘The Flying Sikh’ as we knew him, it was different because he was a social icon in India on many levels.
It would be a mere ignorance to hack him just as the man who missed the 400-meter bronze at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He was a remnant of the painful saga of the undivided India’s division, showing the world that a sensitive Indian army runner can nurture global ambitions in athletics at a time when the country was truly known for its skill in hockey on the Olympic Games arena.
The achievements were astonishing for someone in that era – four gold medals at the Asian Games – two in the 400 m (1958, 1962), one in the 200 m (1958) and one in the 4 x 100 m relay (1962), the first Indian athlete holding a Commonwealth Games gold in 1958 and a phenomenal record of winning 77 out of 80 races in the run-up to the Olympics. He was considered in all respects a medal prospect in the 400-meter race in Rome.
It is widely known, possibly a ‘sitter’ in sports questions about his timing at the Olympic Games in Rome – which was a national record for almost four decades in India, while his 400-year Asian record stood for 28 years . However, the race that finished him fourth was one of the most extraordinary quarter-millions ever made in the history of the Olympic Games – where all the first four finishers broke the world record of 45.9 seconds.
He finished fourth with a time of 45.6 seconds according to a handheld device, while an unofficial electronic timer at the games put him at 45.73 sec. It was often a point of contention – but in the end it did not matter.
In his own words of Milkha, he had the habit of looking over his shoulder at the last minute at his closest rivals who might have cost him third place. His biopic ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ (Run Milkha Run) refers to nightmare’s memories of the childhood of riots during the trauma of the division – something that certainly had to be approved during the research period.
It was another generation and value system that he was born in Punjab, where he first started running on the promise to drink free milk as a child. Otherwise, why would he charge only Rs one (about five supplements) to give permission to make a biography of his life – a story confirmed by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra – when the story of his life all the recipe of a gripping story.
They will definitely not make men like Milkha Singh anymore!