How Milkha Singh became a beacon of hope for Indian athletics

Milkha Singh (second from right) competes in the heats of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Milkha Singh (second from right) competes in the heats of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Srijanee Majumdar

September 6, 1960. Rome Olympics.

Milkha Singh crouched in the starting blocks and positioned himself for the most important race of his career. He leaned forward, hands on knees, got set, and surged into a run. He got off to an explosive start but an error in judgment in the closing stages of the race cost him a place on the podium.

Milkha charged his way across the 400m race but could only finish with a time of 45.6s. He was outgunned into fourth place by South Africa's Malcolm Spence, who finished only 0.1s faster than Milkha. It all happened in a blink.

"A strange thought came to my mindβ€¦β€˜am I running too fast? Will I be able to finish the race with this speed?’ So I slowed down and dropped my speed and the rhythm with which I was running. As you know once you drop the rhythm, it is hard to regain it. I went mad, and tried to cover up, but it was too late. The thought that I lost a medal in the Olympics in this manner still haunts me," Milkha was quoted as saying.

Also Read: Interview with Milkha Singh: "We don't lack talent but we lack hard work and will-power"

Milkha Singh led an era of excellence in Indian sports

Armed with the perfect concoction of speed and talent, Milkha Singh was destined to rule Indian athletics.

He may have fallen short of a podium finish, but his efforts brought him close to sporting immortality among Indian fans.

He had, of course, made history in the 1958 Olympic race, a national record that was held for nearly 40 years.


Milkha's incomparable achievements cemented him as the country's finest track and field athlete of his generation. Long before his superlative efforts on the Olympic stage, Milkha had already set the bar high with four Asian golds and a first-ever Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1958.

Road ahead for Indian athletics

The decade gone by has brought about a revolution in Indian athletics, which has taken the sport to unprecedented heights. With Milkha as a role model, the conveyor belt of talented athletes in the country is showing no signs of slowing down.

But even as the next breed of athletes - led by Hima Das and Dutee Chand - raise the bar on the track even higher, there will only ever be one Milkha Singh.

Also Read: Hima Das, Dutee Chand in race against time to qualify for Tokyo Olympics

Edited by Prem Deshpande
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