Shivnath Singh: India's lion-hearted runner
In a country where athletics garners a subliminal level of importance, it can be rightfully stated that the hype which surrounds various other sports obscures the great achievements by athletes who toil to reach exemplary levels of excellence and bring glory to India.
One such brave-heart is Shivnath Singh, India’s greatest long distance runner, whose national record in the marathon of 2:12:00 hrs set in 1976 persists to this day, serving as an intimidating mark to overcome.
Equipped with the grit and determination to overcome all obstacles, and to train like to a workhorse, Shivnath Singh was the very personification of endurance. He would run bare-footed with great resolve, never to be seen wilting.
He was born on July 11, 1946, in the village of Manjeria, Buxur (Bihar). Though his family was not financially sound, Shivnath took to running at an early age, which proved to be a boon not just for himself, but also for the country.
Shivnath’s breakthrough performance was at the 1973 Asian Championships in Manila, when he secured the silver medal in both the 5000m and the 10,000m. He finished second to Ichio Sato of Japan in the 5,000, and lost out to teammate Hari Chand in the 10,000m. But in the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran he went one step further, winning his first and only major gold medal in the 5000m. That year, he was also adjudged as the best sportsman in the country, and was awarded the Arjuna award.
In the 1975 Asian Championships, in Seoul, his 1973 fate was replicated, as he secured the silver medal in both the 5000m and the 10,000m, losing out to the same competitors.
The rivalry between Hari Chand and Shivnath Sigh was somewhat similar to that of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. They fought tooth and nail for the gold on every occasion, be it the National Championships, cross-county races, or other road races in North India. Eventually, Shivnath decided to switch to marathon, and it is in that event that he baffled everyone at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, with a time of 2:15:58.
Although Shivnath lead the competition for 32 kilometres – almost three fourths of the race – alongside American Bill Rodgers (a Boston marathon winner) and Finn Lasse Viren (winner of four Olympic gold medals in the 5000m and 10,000m), he gradually drifted behind, and managed to finish 11th in the marathon which comprised of 72 competitors.
In 1978, at Jalandhar, Shivnath’s legendary run of 2:12:00 found its way into the record books, and still stands as the Indian high mark. The Edmonton Commonwealth Games in 1978, the Bangkok Asian Games in 1978, the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the Delhi Asian Games in 1982 were some of the other major international competitions he took part in.
His retirement was a silent affair, and he joined Tata Steel after resigning from the Army. On June 6, 2003, he passed away due to a suspected hepatitis-B infection, which had been the cause of his persistent illness.
On the occasion of his passing, arch-rival Hari Chand recalled, “We used to have a very healthy rivalry those days. Of course there was a lot of expectation when we used to clash in a meet. People used to come to watch us race each other.”
“The country has lost a National hero and I would like to pay my tributes to him,” he added.
Olympian Gurbachan Singh Randhawa from Patiala paid tribute to Shivnath too, saying, “He was a source of inspiration for a generation of long distance runners. He was a great runner.”
India has produced some legendary athletes who defied all odds to scale the pinnacle of excellence, and Shivnath Singh shall forever be a remembered as a part of this league of extraordinary men.