The legend of Milkha Singh is not one race or one event; from the fire and trials of his early life, to the way he lived out his retirement, with dignity and enthusiasm, he embodied the best of sport.
Milkha Singh's life started with running. Along sandy stretches and across canals, just to get to and from school. Ten kilometres one side, he would recount later. In 1947, he would run even more, even faster -- his father's exhortation ringing in his ears -- to escape death. With the Partition at the height of its cruel violence, Milkha would run from his village, through a forest, and into a railway station.
His father's exhortation? Bhaag Milkha, Bhaag (Run, Milkha, run).
That Milkha didn't let the formative years of his life -- fleeing the Partition, living on a railway platform for a month, going to jail for travelling on a train without a ticket, thinking about becoming a dacoit -- set the tempo stands as a testament to his character, and his willpower.
He would need all that willpower in 1951, when he was selected for the Indian army, as a jawan (junior soldier). In a camp in Secunderabad, Milkha would truly start running for the first time. Having finished sixth in a mandatory cross-country race, he was selected for further training. Havaldar Gurudev Singh, his first coach, would ask him to run the 400m. From training in secret at night to being exempted from mandatory 'fatigue time' (when jawans would do cleaning jobs, gardening, and other odd chores), Singh would practice till he became the best in the country. By some margin.
It was soon time to look outside India and properly stretch those legs. In the 1956 Olympics, Milkha did not get past the heats, but the whole shebang was a steep learning experience. It was here he first truly comprehended what it would take to be the best of the best.
Two years later, at the 1958 Asian Games, he would put that knowledge to great use when he edged out Pakistan's Abdul Khaliq in the 200m by 0.1s, setting a then Games Record time of 21.6s. He would comfortably win his pet event too, the 400m, by 2.5s.
No other Indian won on the track in that meet.
Setting the pace
That stark difference between his quality and those of his compatriots would be underlined a few months later in the 1958 Commonwealth Games. In the 400m (or the 440 yards, as the meet called it at the time), he would beat a quality field to win gold -- beating South Africa's Malcolm Clive Spence by 0.3s.
India won just three medals at that meet (the others a gold and a silver in freestyle wrestling). No Indian has won an individual gold medal on a Commonwealth Games track since.
Two years on from his Asiad and CWG heroics, Milkha was at the height of his considerable powers. Early in 1960, an invitation came from Pakistan -- 'come, race our great Abdul Khaliq again'. After initially refusing, he was persuaded by Jawharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, to go.
He received a hero's welcome, and in the race itself comfortably beat Khaliq. At the prize distribution, the then President of Pakistan would commend him, in Punjabi, 'You didn't run today, you flew.'
Milkha returned from the land of his birth, the Flying Sikh.
The greatest race
Then, the race. Rome, the 1960 Olympics. In a ridiculously tight 400m race -- the eight finalists were separated by one second -- Otis Davis won gold over Carl Kauffmann by a hundredth of a second. Just behind them, Malcolm Spence beat Milkha to bronze by one-tenth of a second. The official timings read - Davis and Kauffman 44.90s, Spence 45.50s, Milkha 45.60s, Manfred Kinder and Earl Young 45.90s.
Milkha had shattered the national record, but he returned home a broken man. He would later say he had started too fast, and, scared of not finishing, had slowed down around the 250m mark. He had beaten all the athletes before, except Davis, and he had known going in that this was going to be his race. By a hundredth of a second, it wasn't to be.
And yet, for a nation starved of athletic success, it was.
Rome, 1960. The Milkha Singh race. No Indian man has come closer to a medal on an Olympic track since.
Milkha would shrug off the disappointment of Rome to defend his 400m gold at the Asian Games in 1962, beating compatriot Makhan Singh by 0.6s to finish on 46.9s. Makhan and Milkha would combine with Daljit Singh and Jagdish Singh to win gold in the 4x400m relay as well, setting a then games record of three minutes, 10.2 seconds.
He would travel to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but would compete only in the 4x400m relay, where India were eliminated in the heats. And thus an illustrious career wound down, quietly.
Milkha's 400m record, set in Rome (autocorrected by an electronic system to 45.73s from the hand timed 45.6s entered in the official books), stood for 38 years before Paramjit Singh ran 45.70s in 1998. Paramjit ran on a synthetic track, a considerably faster medium than the cinder track Milkha ran on. That it took almost four decades to come close to Milkha, despite the improvements in technology and infrastructure, speaks volumes of his sheer quality.
Milkha was promoted to a Junior Commission Officer from the base rank of Sepoy after his athletic exploits. He would later become Director of Sports, Punjab.
A few years after his retirement, a Bollywood movie starring Farhan Akhtar would bring his story back to the forefront, although it had never really left the national consciousness. He had sold the rights to the movie for one rupee, asking instead that a percentage of the film's profits be donated to his charity.
The name of the movie? The words Milkha says his father had cried out all those years ago... Bhaag Milkha, Bhaag.
Milkha would always say the pain of losing a medal at the Olympics was next only to that of losing his parents. That loss would haunt him for more than half a century, but we know he won. It wasn't just the medals, it was the haunting backstory, the context, the literal one-in-a-billion-ness. From being orphaned by one of modern history's bloodiest tragedies, to becoming the hero of a nation in desperate need of one, Milkha won the greatest race he ever ran -- life.