Simply put he was the first Indian athletics superhero who had emerged on the scene at a time when such a star coming out of India was deemed impossible. Milkha fired world imagination and successfully placed Indian athletics on the world map without the slightest of backing from the establishment. Hard work and more hard work allowed him to get to where he did and despite not winning an Olympic medal, he continued to inspire generations for decades.
Gold medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games at a time when the CWG was a gold standard event, his achievements are legendary. In fact, his gold was to be India’s only gold medal in Athletics till Krishna Poonia won the yellow metal at the 2010 CWG in New Delhi. And at Rome in 1960, his best and worst moment at the same time, he broke the world record only to miss out on a medal by 0.1 seconds.
Even a week before the start of the Rome Olympics, Milkha was considered to be the favourite for the 400 metres gold. Vince Reel, the American assistant coach of the Indian track team, was confident that Singh would win a medal, maybe even gold. Such hope was based on the fact that Milkha was in peak physical condition going into Rome.
His training was described in the contemporary press in some detail: “India’s great hope has been devoting between an hour and an hour and a half to training every day since his arrival in Rome. He is cutting the distances to sprints of about 150 yards with the object of speeding up.”
“If he has not the stamina now, he will never have it,” said Reel, explaining the reason for reducing the distances.
What was expected to go in his favour in Rome was the tremendous heat which, Milkha was confident, would bother the others in the fray.
Christopher Brasher, steeplechase winner at the Melbourne Games, also fancied Milkha and suggested that he had a great chance of a podium finish for two reasons: his form and more importantly the schedule, which ensured that the semi-final and final were run on consecutive days and not on the same day as had been a practice in the past. This was expected to help Milkha more than some of the other competitors. Eventually, Milkha Singh finished fourth despite having broken the Olympic record with a time of 45.6 seconds. This was a rare race where the first four finishers broke the existing world record and was hailed as the best-ever 400-meter race in Olympic history.
There’s little doubt that Milkha is the greatest male athletics star India has produced. Milkha went on to earn the title of ‘The Flying Sikh’. He ruled the Asian tracks in his heyday while facing heartbreak at the Olympics.
In 1947, Milkha was one of the millions of refugees of Partition, escaping to India by hanging from the footboard of a crowded train. But when he went back to Pakistan later as an athlete, he was mobbed by fans and admirers, a sign of the respect he had earned for himself across the subcontinent.