A chat with the ‘Flying Sikh’: Milkha Singh of India

By Manju Mittal

The Flying Sikh Milkha Singh

The Legend Milkha Singh who is popularly known as the ”˜Flying Sikh’, is one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. A living legend that the whole of India is proud of. I caught up with the world champion Milkha Singh to chat in his beautiful house in Chandigarh on my recent visit to India. The moment stood still, as I bowed and touched his feet. He was wearing black suit with maroon turban and tie, I must add, is simply goose-bumpingly dashing. He is 93 years old yet his voice so strong that of a young man.

The Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, is the most famous sportsman on the planet. But his supporting achievements are just a part of his amazing life story. It was his charm that captivated people, joyous, eccentric and life affirming.  His regular training with levels of obsession and invention that no one could ever contemplate before. Undoubtedly he was and is one of the best runner our country produced.

Milkha Singh in 1956 Olympics

Milkha Singh represented India in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. There after 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 representing Independent India.

His story is captured in the film ”˜Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra showcased the athlete’s earlier life on the big screen. In Omprakash Mehra’s words “The man who lost the most important race of his life ( Rome Olympics ) actually won in the race of life”.

My moments with him felt precious when the legend Milkha Singh shared his passion for running, his personal journey when he divulged his secret fitness mantra as we touched many other aspects of his busy life.

Milkha ji, Tell us about your childhood days and your family?

I was born into a Sikh Rathore family in 1935 in Govindapura village, Muzaffargarh in West Pakistan which was far away from any city. My forefathers, who were originally from Rajasthan, were ironsmiths. My father was a farmer with a small land holding. Partition separated both my family and home.

I married Nirmal Kaur, former Indian Vollyball capton and we have two daughters and a son, Jeev Milkha Singh, champion golfer. I think mine is the only Indian family with two Padmashri awardees.

How did you get started as a runner and your biggest source of motivation in your entire career?

I was good at cross country running and everyone in the Army was impressed with my abilities. The encouragement from the army motivated me to take running seriously. I would give credit my success to the Army as they helped me acuminate my skills.

I used to train for seven hours everyday. Sand training, I did by running along the banks of Yamuna. All this happened under Havidar Gurdev Singh’s guidance. It was done on bare feet since we did not have spikes in India during those days.  I sometimes felt that I would drop dead while training. There have been times when I was put on oxygen in the hospital as I would occasionally faint after training. But I never looked back once I started running.

What was your recollection of the energy in Australia, your first race at the Olympics in 1956 at Melbourne?

My first race at the Olympics in Melbourne city was my very first time on such a big stage; so my defeat was expected but I was not willing to give up. I wanted to show the world that we Indians could do what the other athletes from other nations could do. I was so determined to learn training methods that the champion Charles Jenkins adopted. I followed him with my teammate Jagdev Singh. Initially, Jenkins tried to avoid us but then after two days, he promised to write down his training regimen and handed it to me.

What are your fondest memories of Australia?

Betty Cuthbert with her medals

I must share my fondest memories of Australia with you, I had an Australian girlfriend, I met Betty Cuthbert in Australia while practising for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The 18 year old athlete Betty fell in love with my turban, she was so amused to see my turban. There were very few Sikhs in Australia then and Betty had never seen a turban before. The next day, she came to me and asked if I could tie a turban on her head.

I took her to my room, which was close to the 400 metre track in the stadium, and tied a blue turban on her head. That Olympics was truly special for Betty as she won three gold medals and my heart. I tried to get in touch with Betty when I went to Melbourne after many years, I called her home and her son picked up the phone, I introduced myself, he recognized me. He said she was no more. She had been suffering from blood cancer. Her son told me that they still keep the turban I gifted her, as a souvenir.

Milkhaji, your son Jeev is a professional golf player; did you always want him to be an athlete like you?

Jeev is a born gifted sportsman as he had athletics in his genes. He was a great runner at school level but his mother and I decided not to put him into sports. When he was a child, he used to watch me play golf and developed an interest in it. I feel it was his destiny to play a professional sport and now he is a well known golfer all around the world. I consider myself to be very fortunate as both my son and I have been awarded with the Padmashri and Arjuna awards.

How was your experience watching a successful biopic film ”˜Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’?

Farhan Akhtaras Milka Singh in ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’

A lot of people have come to me with huge offers. But I chose to co-operate with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra as a result of which I sold my story for a token of just 1 Rupee. I became very emotional after watching the film as certain scenes reminded me of my days of struggle. The film brought alive memories of the partition when I did not have a job or enough food to eat. I burst into tears to see my initial days unfold on the big screen. I must say Farhan Akhtar has done a brilliant job as Milkha in the film.

 I cried three times in my life, firstly when my family got killed in partition, second when I did not win the gold medal at the Rome Olympics and recently when I saw the Bollywood biopic on my life, ”˜Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’.   

What advice would you give to the young generation, especially sportspersons?

Have a clear focus of what it is that you want to achieve, and by this I mean a realistic focus, don’t set up yourself up for failure. If you aim for something and do the work most things are achievable you just have to get yourself into a place where you can be confident in yourself. I have always believed in myself and in hard work and hence I strongly believe hard work never fails. A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket.

 Share your fitness secret tips?

Daily exercise and diet control are the two key factors behind a healthy life and if you continue to do this, you won’t need to visit a doctor in your lifetime. Everybody has to die one day, but the love of my well wishers increased my life and now I feel I will live for another few years.

Lastly, Milkha ji, any message to your fans living in Australia?

Milkha Singh proudly shows off his achievements at his Chandigarh home

Thanks for all the support you have given me throughout my career. I remember those days when I used to practice at nights when other people go to sleep. Not everyone is born lucky or with a golden spoon, wanting to be a champion, wanting to excel at anything, whether it is in the arts, in education, in business or in sports requires the same basic ingredients; an aptitude for the subject, a love for the subject, a strong work ethic, and a willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve excellence. Discipline, you have to be disciplined if you want to be world class. Be yourself, helpful to others and remember ”“ ”˜You are all India’s ambassadors’. Jai Hind.”

It was an honour and pleasure to meet the legend and spend time with him. I deeply admire the Flying Sikh. Milkha Singh’s arduous journey, from the refugee camps to becoming a national hero, is truly inspirational. His passion for sport and the tragic tale of his childhood has deeply touched me. Milkha Singh, an extraordinary sportsperson who achieved success from his hard work and strong determination. He is a living legend and inspiration for many. We in Australia, salute you Milkha Singh ji, and welcome you with open hearts.

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