BBEFORE HIS best race, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958, Milkha Singh was far too stressed to sleep. That day he prayed, touched his forehead to the ground, and promised to do his best; but the honor of India, he told God, was in his hands. It was, after all, the new India, independent from Britain for only a decade, striving for gold in games where, as a part of the empire, it never had. done before.
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On the track for the 440-yard sprint, Malcolm Spence of South Africa, the world record holder, was the man he was watching. But if he ran as he planned, Spence wasn’t a danger. He shot from the start as fast as he could, led down the home stretch, thought Spence was nowhere near, but in a second he felt it over his shoulder. At the line, with six inches between them, Spence failed to pass him and he won gold. The stadium burst. As the Indian national anthem was played and the tricolor rose, it seemed 100,000 Englishmen stood up. Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, the Prime Minister, then gave him a hug, telling him that he had made India the pride of the world.
The British who stood up to greet him, however, knew next to nothing about him. To them he was just an exotic person, a village boy with a Sikh bun who ran gracefully waving his arms and usually walked barefoot, although for international meetings he wore shoes. They didn’t know that for him running was not a sport. It was all, his religion, his beloved, life.
As a child, the son of a farmer, he ran to escape the poverty of Gobindpura, in the Punjab, and to study. The school was 10 km away, on sands so hot in summer that he and his friends had to jump between cooling cushions of grass. But at the age of 14 or 15 in the year of the score, 1947, he ran for his life. The state of Punjab was then divided between India and Pakistan, and crowds of foreign Muslims – not the gentle Muslims he knew as neighbors – suddenly arrived in the village. They began to kill, leaving the mutilated bodies for the dogs, and ordered his family to convert to Islam or to die. One night they came, with swords and axes, slit the throats of his parents and chop to death his siblings. Her dying father shouted, âRun, Milkha, run! Bhaag, Milkha, bhaag!He ran towards the forest crying.
There followed a period of scratches, when he jumped on trains as a refugee, without shoes and starving, and became a petty thief, fleeing from the police. Eventually, the military hired him. There he discovered a new kind of running, with training, fixed-length races and prizes. The first race he won rewarded him with food, a glass of milk a day. The first track he saw, adorned with flags, enchanted him. On his first cross-country (âWhat is cross-country?â) He had stomach cramps and sat up every time they grabbed him, but he’s it. likewise came sixth out of 400 runners.
Sixth was good; the first was better. So began the necessary hard work, six hours a day. He ran in fatigue, when others jaws did chores, and at night, when they played cards. He worked up steep hills and through loose sand to build muscle in his legs and slimmed down his upper body with weights. He ran until he filled a bucket with his sweat, until he urinated blood or collapsed from exhaustion and had to go to the hospital. He pushed his body to the limit out of pride and for India. His trainers and doctors would come up every time, but it wasn’t good. He imagined a crowded stadium, the crazy applause, its burst across the finish line, the Indian flag rising – and would run out again.
Iron discipline has paid off. He has won four gold medals at the Asian Games, in addition to gold in Cardiff, and has won more than 70 of his 80 international races. In 1956, during his first Olympic Games in Melbourne, he was eliminated in the heats but did not lose the trip. He asked American 400-meter gold medalist Charles Jenkins to share his training schedule, and for the next four years a piece of paper with Jenkins’ world record, 46.7 seconds, was set. next to his photo of Guru Nanak as the center of his prayers.
In 1960, at the Olympic Games in Rome, his time was 45.6. It was an Indian national record but not, alas, the world record, because he did not win that 400 meter sprint. Although he led for the first 200 yards or so, he then slowed down, glanced back and couldn’t regain his pace. Three runners passed him. It was Spence who, by 0.1 of a second, beat him for bronze. It was the worst day of her life, except for the day her parents were killed. Even the national record he set at the time was electrically reset to 45.73, and in 1998, a police officer broke it. By then he had long since retired from competition, unable to ever forgive himself for that mistake in Rome.
He did, however, manage to forgive others. In 1960, he was invited to Lahore for a meeting between him and Pakistani sprint champion Abdul Khaliq. At first he refused to go. How could he? His childhood home was there now, still drenched in blood. It was Nehru who convinced him that there had to be some friendship between the two crude new nations, so he went for it. The moment he crossed the border, to his surprise, he was greeted with flags and flowers. And when he won his race, the Pakistani Prime Minister whispered to him, in Punjabi, that he had not run that day; he had actually stolen. âPakistan grants you,â he said, âthe title of ‘The Flying Sikh’.
He happily picked it up, and so did his fans. It gave wings to her stardom, which culminated in 2013 with a highest-grossing Bollywood film of her life. In retrospect, âThe Flying Sikhâ was perhaps his favorite honor, although he also received the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award. (He despised the more common rewards, like the Arjuna, which were given to almost anyone like prasad in a temple.) As an athlete, he had only run for his country and the applause of his countrymen. And, despite everything that had happened, he had two countries. Wherever he ran, he said, India and Pakistan ran with him. It was as if in Milkha Singh, for brief seconds, they had found unity. â
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “Running as religion”