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India's first celebrity athlete

With a week to go before Rakyesh Om Prakash Mehra's biopic on Milkha Singh hits the screens, the author take a look at the life and career of the Flying Sikh

Aabhas Sharma  |  New Delhi 

had multiple offers for a movie on his life but rejected all of them. It was his golfer son Jeev who convinced him to tell the story to India's most famous male athlete agreed and sold his life story for a mere Rs 1. The film-maker also agreed that about 10 per cent of the movie's profits would go to the Charitable Trust. The 78-year-old Singh claims that he hasn't seen a single movie since 1968. Yet when he saw Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he was moved to tears and told actor Farhan Akhtar, who plays him in the biopic, "You are a duplicate copy of "

The man, known to Indians of all generations as The Flying Sikh, was born in 1935 in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan. He used to walk barefoot 10 km from his village to a school in Kot Addu tehsil. He lost his parents, brother and sisters during Partition. After India and Pakistan came into being, Singh moved to Delhi to live with his sister.

Once, he was caught for travelling on a train without a ticket. He was sent to Tihar Jail and was only released after his sister sold some jewellery to get him out. In an interview, he said that while in jail, he was so fed up with life that he seriously thought about becoming a dacoit. But his brother convinced him to join the Army instead. He tried, but was rejected three times. He finally got in after he enrolled in the engineering department after his brother Malkhan Singh put in a word for him. He joined the EME Centre in Secunderabad in 1951. It was here that his talent as an athlete blossomed. His first competitive event was a cross-country race and he finished sixth among 500 runners.

Now passionate about his sport, Singh trained hard, often racing against the metre-gauge trains that went past Secunderabad. He used to practice at night. When his superior officers saw his talent, they converted his "fatigue time" (time when jawans do odd jobs) into his training time. In fact, another celebrated runner, Paan Singh Tomar, on whose life Tigmanshu Dhulia made a film, was Singh's junior. The Sikh apparently once defeated Tomar in a long-distance race.

During the 1950s, Singh's biggest rival was Abdul Khaliq, a runner from Pakistan. They fought many closely-contested battles on the track. In 1960, Pakistan invited him to compete in Pakistan but, scarred by the trauma of Partition, Singh refused. It was only after then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru convinced him to go that Singh went to Pakistan. One of the spectators who turned up to see Khaliq and Singh compete was General Ayub Khan. Singh won the race, and when Khan was giving away the medals, he told Singh, "You didn't run today, you flew." The Flying Singh nickname caught on from then.

Singh won two gold medals in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. He also won the best athlete award at the 1959 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. He was the first gold medallist from independent India at the Commonwealth Games. But it was at the 1960 Rome Olympics that Singh entered his name in history books, despite missing out on a medal by a whisker. Just before the Olympics, Singh had created a world record in a preliminary event when he finished the 400m race in 45.8 seconds. But when it came to the Olympics, Singh was extremely unlucky. He ran the 400 metres race and it was one of the closest races in Olympics history. The results were held up as the top four participants had finished the race at almost the same time. When the final ranks were announced, Singh had lost third place to Malcolm Spence from South Africa by the narrowest of margins, thus missing out on being the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic medal.

Milkha Singh continued to compete, and win plaudits. His story is all about grit, determination and passion, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag will take his legend to people who've only heard and read about him.

First Published: Fri, July 05 2013. 21:35 IST