It took me almost two hours to search for a cafe on a recent trip to Ambala. The waiter was smart enough to sense that I wasn't there for the coffee. All I cared about was a seat in front of the television to watch Usain Bolt clinch the 200 meters title in the 2012 Olympics. Sensing my interest in the sport, he came up to me and said, “Sarwan Singh used to live across the adjacent street.”
I stared at him blankly, trying my best to muster all my senses and recall hearing this name earlier, but all I could do was ask him, “Who Sarwan Singh?”
The waiter tried his best to keep quiet, but couldn't stop himself from letting out a condescending smirk. I felt horrible, despite knowing that I was surely among the thousands who would have asked the same question.
The year was 1954, the event, Asian Games, and Sarwan Singh was the Indian representative in the 110 meters hurdles. It was his first international event. Perhaps for the first time he was going to run in front of a gathering of nearly a lakh screaming fans. But all he cared about were the 10 hurdles on the way to his dream - his only dream, the gold for his country.
He never ran; he flew over the hurdles. Those 14.7 seconds he took to cover the 110 meters were described by him as the best time of his life. The gold medal, his most precious treasure, was around his neck. He couldn't have felt prouder. He recalled feeling like a war hero on watching the tricolour rise.
But fate had different plans in store for him. The gold medal, which was expected to buy him a living, proved to be a useless piece of metal for the authorities. The medal couldn't even buy him a government job. He was reduced to having to beg for a survival. None of the government officials cared about his whereabouts and his plight refused to move anyone in power; no one cared enough to help an Asian Games gold medalist lead a life with dignity.
One of his friends rented out a cab which Sarwan Singh drove to support his family. From being a proud athlete who jumped over his hurdles on the track with ease to a taxi driver who was unable to even rise above his life's hurdles, life had played a cruel joke on Sarwan. He drove the taxi for nearly 20 years, far away from his home town, far away from the gaze of his family and friends.
In a country where one-Test wonders earn lakhs for appearing on news channels and passing snide remarks about the current crop of players, Sarwan Singh, the Asian gold medalist, was given a monthly pension of 1,500 rupees. At the age of 70, at a stage in his life when he couldn't even walk properly, he was forced to till someone's land to manage an existence.
The Asiad gold was the proudest moment of his life, a moment of his life he fondly recalled, a moment he wished to live again. But his dire economic conditions forced him to sell his treasure, his gold.
'Heroes' is a highly abused word in India. A batsman who scores 20 quick runs is termed a hero. A fielder who takes a diving catch is termed a hero. But a gold medalist hurdler lives his life in absolute poverty, shame and disdain.
It is very easy for us to complain about the inability of our athletes to win medals at the Olympics, but when we have several such Sarwans in every corner of the country, it is no surprise that nobody takes up athletics seriously.