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Commonwealth Games: When Milkha Singh surprised the world to start a golden tradition for India

Milkha Singh won India’s first gold medal in the 440 yards race at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales.

Indian sprint legend Milkha Singh’s triumphs on the racetrack are part of sporting folklore across the world.

And one such victory in The Flying Sikh’s long list of conquests is the history-making win at the Commonwealth Games 1958.

Milkha Singh became the first Indian to win a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games when he won the 440 yards race at Cardiff 1958.

What makes Milkha’s feat even more impressive is India were not an athletics powerhouse which it is today at the Commonwealth Games.

Before Milkha Singh’s win, India struggled to get on the podium at the CWG, known as the British Empire Games back then, and had just one bronze medal in three appearances.

However, India’s fortunes changed after Milkha Singh’s win.

Buildup to the big race

Heading into CWG 1958 in Cardiff, Wales, Milkha Singh had already made a name for himself in the Indian circuit. Earlier that year, he had broken the national records in 200m and 400m at the National Games in Cuttack.

Milkha Singh also won two golds at the 1958 Asian Games but the Commonwealth Games were a different ball game.

“No-one had heard of Milkha Singh at the Commonwealth Games,” the legendary runner told the BBC years later. “There were competitors from Australia, England and Canada, from Uganda, Kenya and Jamaica – the athletes who took part were world-class.”

Despite the tough competition, Milkha Singh made it through the heats, quarter-finals and semifinals to become one of the six runners in the 440 yards final at Cardiff 1958. Then it all boiled down to nerves.

“When a person makes it to the final, he is under so much stress that he is unable to sleep. It was a very difficult night,” Milkha Singh recalled.

Out of the six finalists, Milkha Singh was wary of one South African named Malcolm Spence, who had finished sixth at the 1956 Summer Olympics – the same event where Milkha was out in the heats.

But a tactical race strategy and a few words of motivation from his American coach, Dr Arthur W Howard, helped Milkha Singh overcome the mental barrier.

“My coach convinced me – drilled it into my head – that I could win the race regardless of whether Spence was a world-class, world record holder. He was nothing before me if I ran my race as planned.”

Milkha Singh’s final run at CWG 1958

On July 24, 1958, at the packed Cardiff Arms Park, Milkha Singh was out to make history.

Competing against John Macisaac of Scotland, Canada’s Clive Tobacco, English runners John Salisbury and John Wrighton, along with Malcolm Spence, Milkha Singh took his position in the outermost lane in the 440 yards final.

“I said my prayers, I touched my forehead to the ground and said to God, ‘I am going to try my best but India’s honour is in your hands,'” Milkha Singh said.

In the last lane, Milkha Singh got off the blocks quickly and put the coach’s plan into action – running as fast as he could right from the start instead of saving fuel for the final stretch.

Milkha Singh developed a sizable lead in the first 350 yards but was running out of steam in the home stretch.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Spence made a dash from the inner lane and almost caught up with the Indian. “While I was running, I stole a glance sideways and saw Spence just behind my shoulder,” Milkha Singh said.

Milkha Singh, however, ran his heart out and beat the South African by 0.3 seconds to become the first Indian to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

The Indian sprinter clocked 46.6 seconds, making a new national record, while Spence completed his race in 46.9 seconds.

“I was crying with joy and thinking to myself, ‘Milkha Singh, today you have truly done India proud.’”

Milkha Singh received a grand welcome on his return to India and then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru even declared the next day a public holiday on the sprinter’s request.

With the win, Milkha Singh not only etched his name in the history books but also started a trend that has continued till today.

Since 1958, India have won a gold medal in all editions of the Commonwealth Games they have participated in.

By Aarish Ansari

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