Milkha Singh, The Hope of Asia: Sprinting Dominance at the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games

Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh (right) barely edging out Abdul Khaliq in the 200-meter finals of the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.

He arrived at Haneda Airport in May of 1958, camera bulbs popping and microphones thrust towards him. He was driven to The Dai-ichi Hotel escorted by police on motorcycles, greeted by fans asking for autographs.

Having recently broken the Asian speed records in both the 400 meters and 200 meters, Milkha Singh was a sports hero throughout Asia, and was in Tokyo to compete in the 1958 Asian Games.

Eyes bleary and bloodshot from a long flight from Calcutta, India, Singh still was amazed when he arrived in Japan, as he described in his autobiography, The Race of My LIfe. “I was thrilled to have been given a chance to visit Japan, a country I admired for the tenacious way they had rehabilitated themselves after the devastation wrought by the Second World War. When we landed at Tokyo Airport, our eyes were dazzled by the brightness of the multicolored lights. The puddles of water that had collected after a recent shower glowed with the reflection of the lights as well.”

It was at these Asian Games where Singh established his famous rivalry with Pakistani, Abdul Khaliq, the fastest 100-meter sprinter in Asia at the time. According to Singh, when Singh was first introduced to Khaliq at the hotel, with a friendly warning to watch out for Singh in the 200 meters, “Khaliq shot back, ‘I have met and run races with many a Tom, Dick and Harry like him. They are no match for me.”

On Day 2 of the Asian Games, Singh was favored to win the 400-meter race, which he did fairly handily. His time of 46.6 seconds was an Asian record, which the Japanese crowd greeted with an eruption of cheers. “I felt my hair stand on end and a shiver of delight ran through me,” he wrote. And when he saw the Indian flag rise high, he wrote that “it was the most stirring moment in my life and I was filled with great patriotic fervour seeing the Tricolor fluttering in the open blue sky.”

But his defining moment of truth was still to come.

The 200-meter competition was held the next day. Khaliq of Pakistan had won the 100-meter finals. Singh of India had won the 400-meter finals. Thus, bragging rights for fastest man in Asia would be determined in Asian Games 200-meter finals.

After the starting gun was fired, and the six sprinters made their way up the straightaway, Khaliq and Singh were essentially neck and neck at the 100-meter mark. With Singh on the innermost lane and Khaliq a couple of lanes to Singh’s right, they both knew it was going to be a fight to the finish.

Despite focusing on our running, we were each aware of the other’s progress and were pushing ourselves and our utmost limits. It was fast, it was furious, it was neck-to-neck. There was high drama. About three or four yards from the finishing line, I pulled a muscle on my right leg. Then my legs got entangled and I tripped and tumbled over the finishing line. At that very moment, Khaliq breasted the tape too.

Milkha Singh tumbling over finish line at Tokyo Asian Games from The Race of My Life
From Singh’s autobiography, The Race of My Life.

It took about 30 minutes for the judges to analyze the photographs taken at the finish line from multiple angles. In the end, the judges determined Singh the victor. “I was now Asia’s best athlete!”

Japan leveraged these 1958 Games, showing off its new National Stadium and its ability to run a major international sports competition. The next year, Tokyo was selected to host the 1964 Summer Olympics. Singh would go on to take gold at the 400 meters at the Commonweatlh Games in London, and earn the moniker, The Flying Sikh, and become a favorite to be the first Asian to win a gold in track at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

In the early 1960s, Milkha Singh, along with C. K. Yang emerged as the great Asian hopes in athletics.

Milkha Singh heros welcome from The Race of My Life
Milkha Singh returns from Tokyo to India, from The Race of My Life