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The psyche of the 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh - an inspiration for youngsters

Milkha Singh

I recently watched the much-awaited movie ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ and it left me on a high!

Kudos to Mehra’s team for the way they have portrayed the character of Milkha Singh. Not only did Farhan Akhtar do justice to the athlete, but the message of the movie goes much beyond sport!

I watched the movie while wondering about the major tenets of psychology that need to be embedded into the psyche of every athlete. Not just sports but every arena of life requires motivation, dedication, passion and goals to accomplish; without those, we just go on living like we have an eternity to pursue our dreams.

Milkha Singh is one of the most outstanding players India has ever produced in athletics. He represented India in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Thereafter, he won gold medals at the 1958 Asian Games. He progressed to win a gold medal in the 400m competition at the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games, making him the first gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Milkha finished second in all of his 400m races prior to the final, improving his time on each occasion. In the final, he went racing off the blocks and took an early lead. But he slowed a bit mid-way through the race, and the others overtook him there. He increased his pace and gave his best in the last lap but finished fourth by just 0.1 second in the heartbreaking final.

However, his effort did not go in vain as Milkha’s agonisingly close finish brought his countrymen the belief of ‘we can’ and the gold, nearly half a century later, through Abhinav Bindra.

It all started when Milkha Singh – a fresh recruit at EME Centre, Secunderabad, heard an announcement one night in 1951: “Tomorrow, there will be a cross-country race”. He recalls after making it to the elite top 10 in the race, “I was moved to tears by the thought that from being nobody the night before, I had become somebody”.

“Havaldar Gurdev Singh charted my climb to the top,” he says about the mentor who was quick to spot his protege’s potential.

Determined to be the best and realising his talent as a sprinter, the jawan took to training five hours every day. He says, “Discipline. You have to be disciplined if you want to be world class.”

Guided and motivated by his coach Havaldar Gurdev Singh, he left it to the elements to hone his craft – running on the hills, the sands of the Yamuna river, and against the speed of a metre gauge train. “I’d race against the metre-gauge trains that criss-crossed Secunderabad localities such as Bolarum and Cavalry Barracks.”

Legend has it that so intense was his training that very often he would vomit blood and collapse out of exhaustion.

Forty years on, that failure in Rome still haunts him. After clocking a world record 45.8 seconds in one of the 400 metres preliminaries in France, Milkha Singh finished fourth in a photo-finish in the Olympics final. The favourite for gold had missed the bronze by a fraction.

“Since it was a photo-finish, the announcements were held up. The suspense was excruciating. I knew what my fatal error was: After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250 metres. I could not cover the lost ground after that – and that cost me the race.

“After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory,” says Singh. “I kept crying for days.”

Dejected by his defeat, he made his mind up to give up the sport. It was after much persuasion that he took to athletics again. Two years later, Milkha Singh won two medals at the 1962 Asian Games.

Milkha Singh

Subsequently, he earned the title of the “Flying Sikh” from General Ayub Khan after defeating Abdul Khaliq, Asia’s celebrated runner, in the year 1962 at Lahore’s Indo-Pak meet. The whole stadium was packed to see the key contest between two of Asia’s finest runners. Milkha Singh comprehensively outran Abdul Khaliq of Pakistan in the 200 metres race.

It was said that Milkha did not run the race, but he flew, and hence the title. The movie has captured that very well with the General shown to be applauding him with the words, “tum bhaage nahi the, ud rahe the‘.

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