National Interest: Running debatehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/national-interest-running-debate/

National Interest: Running debate

Milkha might be India's most romanticised athlete. But is he the greatest ever?

Milkha might be India’s most romanticised athlete. But is he the greatest ever?

There is no argument that Milkha Singh is India’s most fascinating athlete ever. His is a most film-worthy story,even if you took out the scriptwriter’s fiction from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,like the flashback of a childhood trauma making him turn at a crucial moment in the final race at the Rome Olympics,where he led the pack (in reality,he had just looked back,curious to see where Otis Davis,his most likely challenger,was and lost that vital microsecond). But is he India’s greatest athlete ever?

Probably,because no other Indian has ever broken an athletics Olympic record — the first four at Rome,including Milkha,did so. Also,nobody has won as many international races as Milkha did. But Indian athletics is not a solitary-star story. In each decade,India has produced some class athletes. And while Milkha’s personality,his happy demeanour,his utterly,disarmingly unselfconscious ability to communicate — his fumbles with the English language are so essential to his endearing legend — made him our most adorably durable star,many fans and followers of Indian athletics will list other favourites for that greatest athlete ever title.

It isn’t easy to open that discussion in a country that follows almost no sport other than cricket,with hockey,tennis and lately badminton,trailing way behind. Athletics — track and field — is the Cinderella of our sport. Yet,track and field is the mother of all sports,and the fount of all talent and ability in physical sport. It is rare to see a country not feature high in athletics and yet have great sporting standards,except probably in a much less physical game like cricket. That’s why we do not remember the athletics greats we have produced,build no memorials or museums for them,or mob them. This film has served to make a national star,at the age of 78,out of an athlete who so charmed our parents half a century ago. But it also reminds us of some others,and to see if someone measures up to Milkha’s stature.

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THE first would be Gurbachan Singh Randhawa,more or less a contemporary of Milkha’s. Many Indian track-watchers would insist he has been our finest athlete ever. If Milkha finished fourth at Rome (1960),Randhawa ran 110 metre hurdles in 14 seconds at Tokyo (1964) to finish fifth. In that period,he won eight of the nine championships he ran in Western Europe. He was India’s first truly versatile,in fact complete,athlete,and nobody has ever rivalled him. He set four national records at the National Games in Delhi (1960): He won the high jump,his favourite 110m hurdles,javelin and then the decathlon,the ultimate test of athletic endurance and talent. Two years later,at the Jakarta Asian Games,he won the decathlon gold again. He emerged as the athlete of the Games. Nobody has ever reached anywhere near his achievement. But in terms of sheer star quality,he was overshadowed by Milkha. Many old coaches in Punjab would still tell you they have never seen an athlete of his talent and strength. But sadly,he is now forgotten. Of course,the other great talent of more or less the same vintage was steeplechaser Paan Singh Tomar,whose subsequent career as a dacoit dominated his folklore much more than his running talent.

Somewhat less forgotten are the two phenomenal talents we produced in the ’70s. Sriram Singh and Shivnath Singh came from the army’s formidable running stable,then following in the footsteps of Milkha,his persistent challenger Makhan Singh,and Paan Singh. Somewhat unfairly to both,they ran two of the greatest races run by Indian athletes at Montreal (1976),but did not get on the podium. Sriram finished seventh in the 800m,in a race he led till two-thirds of the way. The eventual winner and world record breaker,Alberto Juantorena of Cuba,later attributed his brilliant timing to Sriram’s early burst. But Sriram’s time of 1:45.77 lasted as the Asian record till 1994 — and is still unbroken in India,37 years later. My old friend,colleague and one of the great lovers of Indian athletics,journalist Norris Pritam,tells me how he recently ran into Juantorena,and the first thing he asked him was,where is my friend Sriram Singh,he ran a great race. As a society,we do not acknowledge those who do not win medals. But Norris has a point when he says that athletics is a measurable sport,so an athlete’s timing or distance must also be acknowledged. That is why Shivnath Singh,who may have only finished 11th,running barefoot in the marathon at Montreal,has to be considered one of our greatest athletes ever. The marathon has had African dominance since the 1960s. And Shivnath’s 2 hrs,12 min national record is still unchallenged in almost four decades.

At Montreal,in fact,India fielded perhaps its best men’s track team ever. Remember long jumper T.C. Yohannan? He set the new Asian record at Tehran (1974),with a jump of 8.07m. It survived three decades as our national record. Then there were a few years of drought. Until the era of the golden girls on Indian track.

BESIDES Randhawa,the only Indian athlete to come close to challenging Milkha is P.T. Usha,the scrawny powerhouse that hit Indian track in 1980. In terms of sheer medal victories,she puts Milkha in the shade — she won four golds and a silver at the Seoul Asiad (1986) and continued her reign for almost a decade. If Milkha came in fourth at Rome in a photo finish,so did Usha at Los Angeles (1984). She was only the fifth Indian and the first woman to qualify for an Olympic track final. A quick poll at this newspaper’s formidable sports department had her beating Milkha for the greatest athlete ever title. Why? Because,as Nihal Koshie,senior assistant editor,argues,she had influence in Indian and even Asian women’s athletics that no one has had before or after. She signalled the rise of women on Indian track,and led that pack with such panache.

Shiny Wilson and Valsamma rose from Kerala in her wake. Shiny held the national 800m title for 14 years,and won over half a dozen gold medals in Asian competitions. And then,do not forget the more recent Anju Bobby George,whose 6.83m left her sixth at Athens,2004 (should be moved to fifth now with a drug disqualification),and still stands as a national record. And do we even remember that she became the first Indian to win a medal (bronze) at the World Athletics Championship in Paris (2003)? She bettered that with the silver in 2005 at the World Athletics final in Monte Carlo. A recording with her for NDTV’s Walk the Talk (IE,January 29,2004,goo.gl/ mHGT9K) was an inspirational experience I cherish. So salt of the earth,so competitive and,frankly,so glamorous.

But even in this formidable line-up,here is my vote for the greatest Indian athlete title. And it isn’t for one individual. It isn’t even for a team of contemporary individuals. It is for the phenomenon called the Indian 4x400m women’s relay team. Somehow,and led by Usha,Valsamma and Shiny,India discovered this great talent,which has become an enduring legacy. In the three decades since,four generations of Indian women have dominated this event in Asia,even making two Olympic finals (Los Angeles 1984 and Athens 2004). They finished a creditable seventh in both. They have won a gold (1986,2002,’06 and ’10) or silver (1982,’90,’94) at all Asian Games in these three decades,except 1998. This is the only event where India has bench strength and where the current lot,particularly after the return of Ashwini Akkunji,who is probably our most graceful and technically correct woman runner ever,is in the same league. Now how does a country where some prodigious talent rises once in a generation,defying all odds,and where records survive for decades,build such a tradition in so competitive a field? And mind you,this talent is no longer coming from just Kerala. Karnataka,Punjab,Maharashtra are all contributing. That is why my vote is with India’s relay girls.

No other Indian athlete,in fact not all of them put together,has brought us so many medals — team and individual — and so much joy,as them.

Postscript: You might be justified in asking: Shekhar Gupta,do you have the track record to write on athletics? Well,I began my life reporting sport for this paper,and never quite left that through my reporting years. As a student,and then a cub reporter in Chandigarh,I watched Milkha for hours coaching young athletes on the first class track at my Panjab University Campus,and then covered the Olympics at Seoul (1988) and Beijing Asiad (1990). And I have a story to tell from the sidelines at Seoul.

On one sleepless night,after India had had one more disastrous day at those medal-less Olympics,my friend Lokesh Sharma (then reporting for The Telegraph) and I were generally whiling away our time,playing with the computers at the Press Centre. I was,in fact,playing with a new app (the Koreans had invented one then already!),where you hit an athlete’s name and could check out his/her bio-rhythm on any given date. And then Lokesh came sprinting in,as if he had seen a miracle.

“Oye,tujhe pata hai kya hua,” he asked.

“Kya hua?” I said.

“Oye,woh Ben Johnson,uska su-su….” Lokesh said.

“Kya Ben Johnson ka su-su?” I asked.

“Oye,woh uska su-su fail ho gaya,” Lokesh was so breathless.

This is just after the Canadian had made history,beating the more fancied Carl Lewis in the 100m sprint. Lokesh had overheard two lab technicians talking about his urine sample having failed the dope test.

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We were now sitting on a world scoop. But at 5.30 in the morning at Seoul (3 am in India) we were past all deadlines and it was no use for me anyway as I worked for a fortnightly,India Today. But Lokesh would always land on his feet. He sold the scoop,his greatest ever,to AFP. No wonder he soon outgrew sports journalism to rise as India’s most successful sports entrepreneur,a kind of first Indian Jerry Maguire,and has never looked back since.

sg@expressindia.com