In a country with hundreds of thousands athletes, I was incredibly lucky to get tagged as the successor of a legend like Milkha Singh, even if only for a brief period.
I was able to break his 44-year-old national record in 400m at the Athens Olympics in 2004. I clocked 45.48 seconds to better Milkha's timing of 45.60 set in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Later, another Keralite, Muhammed Anas Yahiya broke my record. Records are meant to be broken, but the Flying Singh's name will remain etched in the annals of Indian athletics history.
Milkha was the flag-bearer of hard work and competitive spirit in Indian sports. As a youngster, he was determined to join the army, but was rejected thrice, citing that he lacked the physical stamina required for army jobs. It is remarkable that Milkha went on to be hailed as the fittest Indian athlete in the '50s.
"God gives us opportunities. Those who make the maximum of them by working hard and making the right decisions will be successful in life." This inspiring and deep quote by Milkha has motivated his preceding generation including me.
Milkha's life is an inspirational book full of wisdom. He was the one who taught India's sportspersons to learn what you can from failures and improve. "Don't let failures drag you down," he used to say.
In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Milkha made a first round exit in the 400m race.
Later, he was quoted as saying that it was the biggest learning experience in his life. Instead of losing heart and hope, he just focussed on coping with the bad phase. He took it as an opportunity to interact with the best in the business and received valuable tips from them. Using those inputs, Milkha modified his training methods and prepared in earnest for the next Olympics. As it turned out, he came perilously close to a podium finish at the succeeding quadrennial event. His fourth-place in Rome was the result of hard work, competitive spirit and learning from failure.
"You have facilities and opportunities that our generation could not even dream of having. You should make use of them and make the country proud," once he told the young athletes at the national camp while sharing his incredible journey with them.
Milkha had promised to give Rs 1 lakh to the athlete who bettered his national record in 400m. After I broke his record at the 2004 Athens Olympics, we met at a private function and I reminded him of the promise. He told me that he was planning to organise a grand function in Chandigarh to honour me and hand over the cash prize. Due to age-related memory impairment, he was unable to keep his word. Not getting the amount, but what I regret the most is the lost opportunity to receive it from the legendary runner.