PETALING JAYA: The death of India’s athletics legend Milkha Singh caused those old enough to remember the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta as the backdrop to what turned out to be the Flying Sikh’s swansong.
Milkha, India’s great 400m runner who narrowly missed out on a bronze medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, died of Covid-19 complications in Chandigarh, Punjab, last Friday.
Milkha, 91, was reputedly fit for his age and was on course to be a centurion until Covid-19 struck. His wife, Nirmal, succumbed days earlier to the same scourge.
At the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Milkha, at the tailend of his career, was on course to defend his title in his speciality – the 400m – and also repeat his 200m triumph at the earlier edition in Tokyo of this quadrennial continental festival.
Over the shorter distance, Milkha’s grip, at the age of 32, not only was beginning to flag but was under threat from a rising new star from Malaya, Mani Jegathesan, then a medical student who later in his career, like Milkha, would come to be known by a sobriquet that had “Flying” attached to it.
It was the BBC that would refer to Jega as the “Flying Doctor” but before matters came to that, at the Jakarta Asian Games, the Flying Sikh of India was shaping up to have a much-drummed up clash with the nascent doctor from Malaya.
In the lead-up, sportswriters, as is their wont, were beating the drums about how the biggest name in Asian athletics was in for a dethroning over the 200m at the Jakarta Games by the parvenu from puny Malaya.
The Milkha name had gained immense lustre from having narrowly missed out on a bronze medal over the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics where Jega had also competed as a 16-year-old teenager.
Jega was one of three Malayan runners in Rome, the other two being Shahrudin Ali and Kamaruddin Mydin. Norman Siebel, an incandescent name in sportswriting in the 1960s, called Shahrudin, 18, Kamaruddin,17, and Jega, 16, Malaya’s “Teenage Trio”.
In Rome, all three would sit in the stands after being eliminated in their heats over the shorter sprints to watch the Asian hero, Milkha.
Despite finishing fourth in the final of the 400m, Milkha’s standing as an Asian athlete shone brightly simply because track luminaries from the continent, save for a rare Korean or Japanese marathoner, were reduced to midgets against American and European competition in the Olympic arena.
Ahead of Rome, Milkha had added fame to his name by winning the 200 and 400 at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games of 1958.
Incidentally, at the Rome Olympiad, Jega was in the same heat of the 400 that Milkha won in 45.6s. Jega was eliminated though he clocked a then Malayan record of 48.4s.
Jega would go on to drop the 400m and take to the 100m to add to his speciality, which was the 200m. He duly won gold medals over both the distances at the
Rangoon SEAP Games in 1961, victories that earned the youngster the favourite’s tag going into the Jakarta Asiad.
This was just the scenario the sports scribes in Asia were intent on playing up, with Milkha whetting the appetite by telling reporters, “Let him come to Jakarta. I will teach the schoolboy how to run.”
In high-octane sports contests, nothing beats a head-to-head duel between bristling adversaries. In reality, however, the older by 13 years Milkha was a friend of Jega’s, the two having met during dining times at the Rome Olympics where the youngster would gravitate towards the older athlete to exchange greetings and small talk.
At the Jakarta meet, Jega, then in his second year of medical studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore, was beaten to the gold medal in the 100m by another doctor, M Sarengat, of Indonesia.
That defeat made Jega as keen as mustard in the longer sprint where he came up against the Flying Sikh in the semi-finals. Jega won his semi-final, but horror of horrors, Milkha ended up fourth – and this in the days when only the first three finishers qualified for the final.
The stalwart was eliminated in the ballyhood clash with the “schoolboy”. Milkha went on to win the 400m while Jega took the 200m gold in 21.3s, a time and an achievement that set him up for semi-final qualifications in his pet event in the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Merit-wise, though these qualifications were compelling, Milkha’s fourth placing at the 1960 Rome Games stood as the lodestar for Asian track athletes for decades to come.
Milkha retired after the Jakarta Asiad. He was made director of sport in Punjab immediately after quitting the track.
Like Jega, Milkha was a frequent presence at Commonwealth and Asian Games in recent decades, the Indian an invitee by the organisers for his multiple achievements at both festivals of sport, and Jega as a doctor on the medical and doping committees of the festivals.
At both events, the friends would catch up on old times over meals and drinks.
Milkha would call on Jega whenever he was in Kuala Lumpur in fairly recent years when he was managing the golfing career of son Jeev Milkha Singh, a professional player who carved out a niche on the Asian circuit.
On the phone from Melbourne, where he is marooned by Covid-19 travel restrictions, Jega told FMT that he values the “self-belief I learned from Milkha”.
“Watching him in Rome I learned you should never sell yourself short and always rate your chances as highly as your preparations have led you to,” he said.
“I will remember him for shouldering the Asian standard at Rome and the way he did it gave me the encouragement I needed to go on to give of my best.”