Vince Reel was an American athletics coach, who spotted and nurtured famous Taiwan sprinter Chi Cheng in the 1960s and later married her. Known for having legendary ability as a scout, Reel was one of the assistant coaches of the US squad for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
On reaching Rome, he was asked to name the possible winner in the men’s 400 metres. Reel said: “Two weeks ago, I predicted India’s Milkha Singh could win the gold in 400 metres. Today I have no hesitation in repeating the same.”
The top coach was wrong on this occasion. Milkha didn’t win the gold medal. He didn’t win any medal for that matter. One of Reel’s team members, 28-year-old Otis Davis, bagged the gold with a record breaking performance. Milkha finished fourth in a breathtaking race – it is part of India’s sporting folklore, but has little impact in the global context.
Yet, the entire episode, perhaps the biggest anti-climax in Indian sports, proved a point that couldn’t be matched till date. Never in the 125-year history of Olympics had an Indian athlete started a pre-Games favourite to win the gold medal in an individual event – not even shooter Abhinav Bindra or wrestler Sushil Kumar, who, unlike Milkha, can boast of not returning from the Olympics empty handed.
Milkha, who died at the age of 91 on Friday (June 18, 2021) because of post Covid-19 related health problems (less than a week after he lost his wife Nirmal Kaur, a former national volleyball captain, to the same ailment), probably stood head and shoulder above all Indian sportspersons on this issue. He was a truly world-level athlete and wasn’t ready to settle for anything lower.
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Milkha was often criticized for his rather lukewarm responses towards exemplary achievements by Indian athletes in various Asian meets. But it wasn’t because he refused to accept their feats. He genuinely believed that real greatness comes from what one does on the global stage – time the Indian athletes stopped aiming for glory in the continent alone.
Talking to Milkha always revealed one thing – he wasn’t exactly comfortable discussing the 400 metres final in Rome despite his record-breaking performance. In 2010, when this correspondent tried to drag him into a conversation on the race, he did satisfy the curiosity with a few polite reminisces, but then suddenly stopped and said: “But I did not win the medal.” He was not trying to pose humble, one could feel. He had always set a lofty standard for himself and maintained it throughout his life.
Kuntal Roy, a Dronacharya award winning athletics coach, has the best thing to say on this. “We have lost the greatest person in Indian track and field history. I call him the greatest by keeping in mind those who won more medals than Milkha, especially at the Asian level. But no one in Indian athletics had commanded so much world-wide respect like Milkha did during his heydays.
“Yes, Milkha failed to win the Olympic medal, which everyone was expecting him to. However, between 1958 and 1960, Milkha was widely believed to be one of the world’s top three 400 metres runners. This is something no Indian athlete could ever match,” said Roy.
The athletics coach was not far from the truth. Ever since Milkha won the top honour in his favourite event in the 1958 Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games), all eyes were fixed on him around the world as one of the possible Olympic champions. Prior to Rome, Milkha was based in London for training and won a series of top meets in Europe to confirm his dominance in the event.
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True he did not fulfill the expectations of his countrymen. But wasn’t it a great effort from a man who lost his entire childhood in the violence-marred partition of a nation divided on religious lines? Wasn’t it an amazing performance from a youngster who didn’t even have any idea what modern training method was all about till he joined the Army?
Going by the events surrounding Indian sports in Rome, the 1960 Olympics would have been an immensely forgettable show for the Indians. It began from the opening ceremony, when at least three to four persons having no connection with the Indian contingent were spotted proudly joining the march past. At least half a dozen Indian officials were accused of illegally occupying rooms in the Games Village along with their family members.
To make it worse, India surrendered their Olympic hockey supremacy for the first time in Rome. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) had no satisfactory answer to the queries why three players, who were not part of the original squad, were taken to Rome and given the officials blazers and accommodations in the Village. Amidst this sheer mess and claustrophobic nepotism, Milkha alone stood tall with his classic performance.
Milkha wasn’t a highly educated person. His troubled childhood hardly provided him time to have happy school days like any other normal child. Athletics gave him some stability in life, but nothing beyond that, at least initially. In May 1958, he won double gold medals in 400 and 200 metres in the Asian Games. As he returned home, Milkha was promoted from Havildar to Jemadar in the Indian Army. It made headlines in newspapers across the country.
Yet, Milkha’s heart was at the right place, it was as clean as his running on the track was. Having travelled during partition in a train that carried more dead bodies than passengers alive, he was a witness to one of the world’s worst communal riots in the 20th century. It failed to poison his mind.
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Pakistan sprinter Abdul Khaliq was considered one of his biggest rivals in the Asian circuit (though Khaliq’s specialty was 100 metres). Till his last days, Milkha spoke about the athlete from the other side of the border with great respect. It was in a meet in Lahore when Milkha was first called the “Flying Sikh” by then Pakistan supremo General Ayub Khan. Milkha was initially reluctant to visit Lahore, but later changed his mind and beat the Pak star handsomely.
Given the hype generated these days over Indo-Pak rivalry in the sporting arena, Milkha was the first to bring that flavour in an individual event. With both Milkha and Khaliq being part of the army in their respective countries, the 400-metre Indian star could have milked enormous publicity from the usual “patriotic” utterances that has become the norm of the current time. He could never be pulled into it.
Milkha was often said to be someone who was indifferent to the next generation of Indian athletes and always busy protecting the halo surrounding his own status. In reality, he always hoped that someday a real world beater would emerge from India. The prevailing system in Indian athletics, Milkha knew, is too faulty to realize his dream. Perhaps that was the reason he maintained his distance from the track and could hardly ever be seen in coaching or administrative roles. One may sound utopian since it needs a kind of perfection that can never be attained. But Milkha was a flawless athlete – he wasn’t ready to compromise on or off the field and therein lies the reason for his greatness that has transcended generations. The gold he won was not a medal, but something larger and immortal.
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