His passing a loss to our family, to Pakistan: Milkha Singh’s rival’s son

Sports News

Abdul Khaliq was Milkha Singh’s arch rival. But they were also joined by war, history, a promise of future. Khaliq’s son speaks to The Sunday Express.

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Shared News: June 20, 2021 7:58:14 am
Milkha Singh, the legendary sprinter, passed away at the age of 91 due to COVID-19 complications in Chandigarh on Friday. (File)
(Written by Mohammad Ejaz)

With the demise of Milkha Singhji, the world has lost a brilliant athlete. Legendary sportspersons are like family jewels for their countries and, considering the shared history of our nations, this is a loss for both India and Pakistan.

Rivals on the track, my father and Milkhaji had a lot in common.
Growing up in Rawalpindi’s Jand Awan village, my father, too, rose from poverty to become a world-class athlete. Like Milkha Sir, he, too, joined the army and it was army training, coupled with his passion for running, that helped my father become the fastest man in Asia from 1956 to 1960.

My father, too, faced disappointment at the Olympics, when he finished fourth in both the 100 m and 200 m semi-finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games (Milkha Singh finished fourth in the 400-m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics).

I first spoke to Milkhaji in 2009. His secretary had called regarding the rights to my father’s portrayal in the biopic Bhaag Mikha Bhaag. He soon came on the line and when I told him that he was a great athlete, he said something I still remember. “Putt, tera bapu boht wadda athlete tha (Son, your father was a great athlete). I became Flying Sikh upon defeating him. My fame is due to him.”

Milkha Singh recieves the gold medal after beating Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq (in white and on left) in the 200m final in 1958 Tokyo Asian Games. Two years later, Milkha again defeated Khaliq in Lahore. Only a man with a golden heart can say such a thing. He made it a point to talk to my mother. Before hanging up, he told me, “Mothers are a form of God and all of us should take care of them as much as we can.” My father was a man of few words. He hardly spoke about his loss in the famous 200-m race against Milkhaji in 1960 at an India-Pakistan athletic meet in Lahore. (It was after this event that then Pak President General Ayub Khan walked up to Milkha Singh and called him the Flying Sikh.) I have heard a lot about my father’s career from his teammate Karamat Hussain and my uncle Abdul Malik, also an Olympian. By 1960, my father’s career was on the decline and yet he was still a master of 100 and 200-m races. They say my father went silent after that 200-m race.

Mohammad Ejaz, the son of Milkha Singh’s arch rival Abdul Khaliq. (Express Photo)
A day after that race, my father competed in the 4×100 m relay race. He and Milkhaji were to run the last leg for their respective countries. The story goes that my father received the baton before Milkhaji but, as my uncle told me, he waited for Milkhaji to come close. Once he was next to him, he said, “Milkha sahib, ab zor lagana (Milkha sahib, give it your all now)”.

The Pakistani team won and, as per the former athletes, my father regained his glory. That was the kind of rivalry they had. My father never showed anger on the field. Once the races were done, he always treated his opponents with respect.

My family will always be in debt to Milkhaji for a great gesture of his. My father was a prisoner of war after the Bangladesh war and was jailed in Meerut. Milkhaji went to meet my father and told the jail officials to take extra care of him.

When I asked him about that meeting, Milkhaji confirmed it and even invited me to visit India. Alas, our wish to meet the legend remained unfulfilled.

Milkhaji was given the title of “Flying Sikh” by General Ayub Khan but not many know that my father was given the title of “Flying Bird of Asia” by the then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who was Chief Guest during the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. This happened after my father won the 100-m title with Nehru watching.

The movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaagbrought the spotlight on my father again. While the Pakistan government honoured my father in every possible way, the younger generation didn’t know much about him. That movie helped my father regain the lost glory.

People were asking about his feat at the Asian Games, the 1956 Indo-Pak meet, and the Melbourne Olympics. There were some who called my father ‘the Usain Bolt of the 1950s’. It felt good to see the younger generation learn about my father.
Earlier this month, Pakistan and our family lost my uncle Abdul Malik, a 1960 Olympian, and now the news of Milkhaji’s passing is like another loss for our family and country.

My mother Valayat Begum sends her condolences to Milkha’s family and to the people of India. Our family stands with them.

(As told to Nitin Sharma)