This story is about how our sports system and our government forget their own heroes and send them into living a life of oblivion and misery. It is a snapshot of everything that is wrong with our sporting system. It paints a dark picture of sporting heroes in our country, and possibly shows the reasons why Indian parents don’t encourage their wards to take up sports as a career. It is the story of Makhan Singh, a track and field athlete who brought laurels to India in national and international forums.
Makhan Singh was an Indian athlete during the 1960s. He won his first medal in the National Games in Cuttack in 1959. He continued his success in the ensuing years, winning a silver and gold in Madras in 1960 and a silver at Trivandrum in 1963. However his biggest triumph was his victory over Milkha Singh in a 400m race in the 1962 National Games in Kolkata, just two years after Milkha Singh’s stupendous feat in the 400m race at the Rome Olympics.
When asked about his training partner and competitor, Milkha Singh commented:
“If there is someone I feared on the track, it was Makhan. He was a superb athlete, who brought the best in me. I would rate him even higher than Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq. We stayed and practised together for years. I don’t think we’ve seen any better competition in the 400m event in India after that.”
Makhan Singh also won a gold medal in the 4x400m relay event and a silver medal in the quarter-mile race in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games. In 1964, he was conferred the Arjuna Award, the country’s highest award for sporting excellence, for his achievements.
It was here that destiny took a bad turn in the life of Makhan Singh. Needing financial support for his family, Makhan Singh started driving a truck in Nagpur. Unfortunately, he met with an accident and lost a leg there, which ended his athletics career. He did not receive any financial aid from the government, and his family suffered in penury.
Two of his sons, Inderpal Singh (14) and Gurwinder Singh (22), passed away due to illness and lack of proper medical support. His third son works as a sewadar in Hoshiarpur BDPO’s office and earns a meagre salary to make ends meet.
To beat poverty, in 1995 Makhan Singh even opened a stationery shop in Chabewal, 3 kilometres away from his village, but could not sustain it as cycling on one leg, which he did for four years, proved too taxing in the end. To help Makhan get over the financial and emotional crisis, Milkha supported him in getting a kerosene oil depot. But he couldn’t earn enough to lead a respectable life and died in 2002 of a cardiac arrest at Chabbewal.
His family lived in poverty even after his death, and pleas for financial support fell on deaf ears of the unsympathetic and corrupt government officials. It was only last year after Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha demanded that the Sports Ministry provide for his widow and family so that they could lead a respectable life, that they were provided financial support by the Ministry.
The lessons from this story should ring loud and clear in the ears of our government and sports ministry. It is high time that sportsmen in all fields are provided proper financial support and care by our government bodies, so that athletes can lead a life of respect and dignity even after their playing days are over. If this is not taken care of, how can we expect more youngsters to take up sports as a career?
Makhan Singh’s example clearly shows us the apathy of sports officials towards our own former athletes. It brings to the fore the lack of a clear structure in place for our sportsmen to ensure their financial security. There are lengthy delays in taking care of such cases, which often means the redressal in many cases happens after a lot of damage has already been done.
However there are other parties too who share the responsibility for such happenings. Our media highlights only cricket and a few other major sports, while others like athletics, hockey and a majority of Olympic sports are not given their due share of attention. This leads to lesser awareness amongst sports lovers of these other sports and their heroes. And public apathy often leads to lack of sponsors to support these sports and their players.
The urgent need is the establishment of efficient sports bodies for all our sports that take care of the sportsmen’s interests during and after their playing careers. They should ensure a pension structure for retired players, putting them under various categories as per their achievements in their respective sports. The government should provide some jobs to the sportsmen and their family members after them to help support them financially. This can go a long way in reducing their anxieties, and they can then devote their full attention towards excelling in their respective sports.
Another thing that could help is greater presence of former players in the respective sports bodies. They are well aware of the various requirements of the top athletes and can understand their problems and issues better than those who have never played the sport. This will also ensure greater connect for players with administrators and faster action for problems facing the players.
If we are to have any hope of becoming a sporting power on the global platform, we need to ensure our athletes get full support in all their endeavours and financial backing to ensure a decent life for them and their families. We can only pray that stories like that of Makhan Singh are not repeated again and our great sportsmen get the support they deserve. Only then will we realize our true potential as a sporting nation.