With the countdown to the upcoming Olympics underway, all eyes are on the Indian athletes who are trying to secure a berth at Rio in their respective sporting disciplines. This is a chance for them to represent the nation at the world's biggest sporting spectacle, and they wouldn't want to let it go no matter how much sweat and blood they have to expend.
It comes as no surprise to me that a big part of India's Olympic contingent is made up of athletes from the defence forces, popularly known as the Services. Jitu Rai, Gurpreet Singh and Chain Singh (shooting), Shiva Thapa (boxing), Kheta Ram, Sandeep Singh, Nitender Singh Rawat, Gopi T, Ganapathi and Devendra Singh (athletics) have all qualified for the upcoming Rio Olympics.
The Indian armed forces has always been on the forefront when it comes to producing sportsmen of international pedigree. In addition to their heroics on the battlefield, where the brave officers and soldiers of the defence forces have made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives in the line of duty, they have been equal to the task of making the nation proud by winning medals for the country at international sports meets.
Sports has always been an integral part of the military fitness regime. There is a structured approach to organizing sports in the Indian army to get to the pinnacle of sporting excellence. There are inter-battalion, brigade, divisional and command level tournaments for each of the sporting disciplines, which brings out the ultimate champions in each sport.
These tournaments are intensely competed by the sportsmen of different battalions, who put their best foot forward for the "naam" and "izzat" of their respective battalions. The Services Selection Control Board (SSCB), the apex sports body governing body, then draws out the best athletes from the tri-services to represent the defence forces at the national level meets.
The Indian army launched a path-breaking program under the aegis of "Mission Olympic Wing" with a view to improve the overall standards of the country's sportspersons and spot potential medal winners for the upcoming Olympics. The Mission Olympic wing has five nodes: the Army Sports Institute (Pune), Army Marksmanship Unit (Mhow), Army Rowing Node (Pune), Army Yachting Node (Mumbai) and Army Equestrian Node (Meerut), which have their task cut out to produce world class sportsmen in archery, boxing, shooting, weightlifting, wrestling and rowing.
The programme has reaped huge dividends, with some of the army men winning medals for the country at the Asian and Commonwealth Games. The services athletes train at the state-of-the-art Army Sports Institute (ASI) at Pune, which is equipped with world class facilities for training and physical conditioning in addition to the best foreign coaches under whose able guidance the athletes can fine-tune their skills.
So let’s go down memory lane and relive the exploits of some of the athletes from the armed forces who represented the country with honour and brought back laurels in different sporting disciplines.
India’s legendary athlete Milkha Singh’s first real exposure to athletics happened in the early days of his army career as a recruit in the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Center at Secunderabad.
Milkha became the poster boy of Indian athletics in the 60s after his heroics in the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he finished a creditable fourth after missing the bronze by a whisker. The “Flying Sikh” won the 400-metre titles in the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games besides winning the 400m title at the 1958 Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff.
Sriram Singh Shekhawat from the Rajputana Rifles was a prominent middle distance runner in the 70s who won gold medals in the 800m at the 1974 and 1978 Asian Games. Sriram represented India in 800m at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.
Shivanth Singh was a great long distance runner who defied all odds and trained hard to achieve notable success in his athletic career. Shivanth won the gold in the 5000m at the 1974 Asian Games. He had an intense rivalry with another great runner Hari Chand, and both of them competed hard for most of the titles in long distance running at the national meets.
In the last decade or so, Surinder Singh from Garhwal Rifles has been one of the best long-distance runners in the country. He has represented India at the 2006 Asian Games and the 2008 Summer Olympics. At the 2007 Asian Indoor Games, he won a silver medal in the 3000m race.
Meanwhile, the likes of Basanta Bahadur Rana and Irfan Kolothum Thodi have been seasoned runners in the international circuit. Both Basanta and Irfan Thodi represented India at the 2012 Olympics.
Anil Kumar Prakash from the Madras Engineering Group was India’s fastest man by a mile in the late 90s and early 2000s. He was the dominant sprinter of his generation and bagged most of the 100m titles at the national athletic meets. It is pertinent to note that he set the national record of 10.3 seconds in 100m at the National Athletic meet in 2005, which stood in his name for almost a decade. He also won a silver medal at the 2000 Asian Athletic championships held in Jakarta.
Paan Singh Tomar, a national steeplechase champion for seven years, served in the Bengal Engineers Group at Roorkee. Tomar represented India in steeplechase at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. The achievement of this unsung hero got plenty of publicity after a Bollywood movie was made on him, showcasing his accomplishments in athletics.
Other notable athletes from the armed forces: Bhim Singh, Ram Yadav, C Hamza, Chand Ram.