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
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Thomas Bach and Narendra Modi
Thomas Bach and Narendra Modi

Bidders for the 2022 Winter Games were so few that the IOC ended up with a winning city, Beijing, that does not get much snow, and thus will have to manufacture it to hold ski competitions.

Bidders for the 2024 Summer Games dropped like flies – Boston, Rome, Hamburg, Budapest – forcing IOC to take its two remaining bids of LA and Paris, and offer them both the next two Olympiads, for fear of not having a decent bid for 2028.

And yet, despite the mounting dissatisfaction in localities where hosting the Olympics are most possible, India is gearing up for a 2032 bid for the Summer Olympics. According to Around the Rings, India’s Sports Ministry is about to initiate a feasibility study into a possible bid in order to convince the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who has his doubts. “A study backed by the Indian Sports Ministry could help convince Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to flip his position on bringing the Olympics to the country for the first time.”

If the study indicates that India could organize an Olympics in 2032, then the India Olympic Association will ask the ministry officially for approval to make an official bid.

Modi had actually declined an invitation from IOC president, Thomas Bach, to make a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics on the heels of a corruption scandal that was reported during India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games. It is also likely that Modi wondered whether the Olympics would be the right area of focus amidst all of its social, financial and infrastructure needs. But Modi appears to be a man of data and facts, so the study is an attempt to provide a rationale and a plan.

According to The Times of India, a ministry source has stated:

We are keen on understanding where the country stands before we decide upon the future course of action. All things that go into hosting the Games will be discussed as we pose ourselves the question whether it is desirable and practical and whether we ought to consider bidding for Olympics at any point.

As a “practice run” to the Olympics, the India Olympic Association is also requesting the sports ministry to approve a bid for the 2030 Asian Games.

So will we see a New Delhi 2032 Campaign? We’ll find out 8 years from now in 2025, when the IOC is currently scheduled to begin the 2032 selection process.

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath.

Rio Medals Table sans Russia

A little less than two weeks prior to the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the IOC made a fateful decision. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that all Russian athletes be banned from international competition, including the Olympic Summer Games. The IOC, which had the final say, chose to defer judgment on eligibility for Olympic participation to the various international sports federations. While the international track and field organization, IAAF, had decided much earlier to ban the entire Russian track and field team, many other federations chose to allow the Russians to compete. In the end, 278 Russians were cleared, while 111 were ruled ineligible.

At the end of the Olympic Summer Games on August 21, Russia had tallied the fourth highest number of gold medals (19) and total medals (56), behind the USA, China and Great Britain. Russia finished ahead of Germany, France and Japan.

But what would have happened if all Russian athletes were banned from the Rio Games as WADA had recommended?

  1. Would the medal tables have changed significantly?
  2. Would any individual or team have won for their country a medal in a specific category for the first time?
  3. Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever?

Would the medal tables have changed significantly? The answer to the first question is no. if the Russians had to give back all of their 56 medals, around 30 nations would be getting additional medals. America could have added two medals but they were already 50 medals ahead of China. China was actually impacted the most by Russia’s presence, as they could have had as many as another 7 bronze medals without the Russians in the mix. But that would still have left them far behind the US in the overall medal race.

Italy may have felt the pain considerably. Like the Chinese, they lost out potentially on as many as 7 bronze medals in a wide variety of sporting areas. Azerbaijan potentially lost out on 5 bronze medals, if not for the Russians.

Of course, these are guestimates I’ve made based on what individuals or teams came in fourth. Complicating matters, in sports like judo or wrestling or boxing you have at least two people each tied for third and fourth. In the case of the men’s lightweight boxing tournament, there were four people who finished just below one of the bronze medalists, a Russian. Who knows who would have actually gotten the bronze without Vitaly Dunaytsev in Rio?

Dipa Karmaker
India’s first Olympic gymnast, Dipa Karmaker
Would any nation have won its first medal in a specific category? The answer to the second question is yes. Dipa Karmaker is a female gymnast from India, and her score of 15.966 in the individual vault competition left her 0.15 points behind Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland. If silver medalist, Maria Paseka of Russia, had her medal revoked, Steingruber, Switzerland’s first gymnast to win a medal of any kind, would be awarded a silver medal. Her bronze medal would go to Karmaker, who is the first ever Indian to compete as a gymnast in the Olympics, and could possibly have been the first to win a gymnastics medal if the Russians were not allowed to compete.

Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever? The answer to the third question is yes: two countries could have finally broken the high-performance glass ceiling with a bronze medal.

If not for Russia, Cameroon could have taken home a bronze in women’s freestyle wrestling (75kg). Annabelle Ali, Cameroon’s flag bearer in the 2012 Games, tied with Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus one notch below the Russian Ekaterina Bukina.

Additionally, Mauritius could have experienced its first medal. Kennedy St Pierre was one of four heavyweight boxers to place fifth at Rio. If Evgeny Tishchenko were not in Rio, a favored boxer would have been out of the competition. Who knows who would have beaten whom? Out of 8 quarterfinalists, four get medals, so St Pierre’s chances would have increased significantly if the Russian was not in the ring. Yes, you can say that for the other competitors, but for Mauritius, it would have been party time if St Pierre brought home the bronze.

Kennedy St-Pierre
Mauritius’ Kennedy St-Pierre beat Algeria’s Chouaib Bouloudinats
Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh

The newspapers called him “The Flying Sikh”. On top of that, the sprinter from India was sporting unusually a beard and a topknot on his head.

Most significantly, Milkha Singh was fast!

It was the finals of the 400-meter race at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the international press gave Singh a chance at being a rare track and field champion from Asia, certainly the first from the newly independent nation, India. As David Maraniss describes in his book Rome 1960, Singh burst out of the blocks in lane 5 in the finals of the 400 meter race in the 1960 Olympics, keeping pace with South African Malcolm Spence in lane 3. Halfway through the race, Singh very much had a chance at gold.

But as they entered the second half of the race, American Otis Davis and German Carl Kaufmann began to emerge from the middle, and surge to the front. They pulled away from Milkha and Spence. At the end, Davis barely edged out Kaufmann. And despite a desperate push, Singh could not wrestle the bronze from Spence.

It was fourth place for Singh, finishing out of the medal, but entering into the consciousness of Indians, a symbol not of failure or misfortune, but of how hard work can take an Indian to world-class levels.

And in the scheme of things, Singh’s life experiences as a child pale in the face of the challenges he faced in Rome. When the British Indian Empire fell, and the state of Pakistan was split off from India, primarily to create separation between Hindu and Muslim populations. The so-called partition, a mass migration of Muslims into Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs into India, was a time of tragedy, when neighbor set upon neighbor, when families were split, and people were murdered depending on what religious beliefs they were believed to hold.

Milkha Singh witnessed this first hand in his home, which was located in the nation that became Pakistan. Driven from his town, his family joined the migration. Inevitably, the family encountered the hatred head on, and Milkha witnessed the deaths of his parents and his siblings. An orphan, separated by surviving family members, Milkha made his way across the border into India.

Soon after the Rome Olympics, when Singh returned to India a star, he was asked by the Indian government to participate in a track competition in Pakistan. And Singh refused. It is the kind of script that could only appear in a movie. And of course, this was the dramatic finish to the 2013 movie, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (“Run Milkha Run”), starring Farhan Akhtar, who does actually look like Milkha Singh in his youth (although far more muscular).

In the end, the prime minister of India appeals to Milka Singh’s responsibility as a soldier of India to defend his country’s honor at this track meet in Pakistan. In reality, very little time has passed since the Partition. Milka Singh did indeed run, as the film would have you believe, from the ghosts of his past, from his Pakistani rival, Abdul Khaliq, and find, perhaps, a peace within himself.

Singh would go on to compete. He appeared in Tokyo at the 1964 Summer Games, running in the 4×400 Relay, but unable to help his team beyond the heats. He was apparently an inspiration to the British champion, Ann Packer, whom he greeted with warm confidence before the 1,500 meter finals, telling her she would win, and she did. More importantly, Singh continues to inspire and make an impact. While he reportedly sold the film rights to his story for one rupee, he stipulated that a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, which assists poor and needy sportspeople.

Here is the final scene from the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in which Singh triumphs in Pakistan.

From the book
From the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha 1”

The British influence on India has not been insignificant. From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, the British introduced the railway system, the legal system, the English language, and sports like cricket and field hockey. In fact, while India was under British rule, India was the dominant force in field hockey, winning gold at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.

In 1947, India gained independence, although parts of the country were parsed off to create the dominion of Pakistan. This “partition” resulted in mass migrations of Muslims into Pakistan as well as Hindis and Sikhs into India. These migrations were traumatic for the tens of millions of people who were uprooted. And as you can imagine, the players on the Pakistan field hockey team had played on previous India championship teams, and knew their counterparts on the Indian team intimately.

And yet, after the partition, India continued to dominate, winning gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956. But Pakistan was getting closer, losing 1-0 to India in the finals in the 1956 Melbourne Games. In Rome, Pakistan did what Indians feared, finally winning gold in Rome.

So the stage was set in Tokyo for a re-match of the two field hockey powers. “The tension was there as many of the players had migrated during the partition, many of them joining the other side,” Gurbux Singh, a full-back on the 1964 India team told me. “We lost for the first time in 1960, and we lost to Pakistan again in the finals of the Asian Games in 1962. It was so emotional as the whole country wanted us to win.”

And win they did. 1-0.

Many of the 2,000 attendees of the finals match at Komazawa Hockey Stadium poured onto the pitch, embracing the players from India, and breaking into spontaneous dance. The weight of an entire nation off their shoulders, the team stood proud listening to their nation’s anthem at the medal ceremony. “Tears came to my eyes when the Indian flag rose,” he said.

“In India, the reaction was great,” said center-forward Harbinder Singh, another member of that gold-medal winning team. “When our airplane arrived in India, people came on the runway. They were beating drums. A lot of people entered the plane and lifted us on their shoulders. And then there were big crowds and processions, people throwing garlands and flowers, dancing in front of our cars.”

“I really felt we did something for our country and ourselves,” reflected Gurbux Singh. “This is the greatest thing an athlete can do.”

From the Hindu Photo Library
From the Hindu Photo Library