When India Celebrated Milkha Singh’s CWG Gold With a Day Off

The year was 1958 and the Cardiff Arms Park in central Cardiff was full to its brim, but there were hardly any Indians in the crowd. Among the handful Indian spectators was Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Milkha Singh, fresh from his double Gold at the Tokyo Asian Games, was busy doing his ritualistic prayer before his sprint. Despite his success in Tokyo, Milkha was wary of South Africa's Malcolm Spence, so he thought a little prayer wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Soon, the runners took their marks and the race began. Just as instructed, Singh ran the first 350 yards of the 440 yards race as fast as he could. After that he delved deep into his reserves and took the lead but Spence followed close behind him.

All throughout the race, Spence was just behind his shoulder. He had almost reached him but in the end Milkha made it to the finish line with Spence still half-a-foot behind him. The stadium erupted in joy.

And with that India had its first Commonwealth Games Gold in its kitty, courtesy ‘The Flying Sikh.’

At the finish line, a teary-eyed Milkha basked in glory after doing the unthinkable. Despite previous success, nobody in the stadium expected a boy from India, who used to run barefoot, to compete at this level and go home with a Commonwealth Gold.

But, yet there he was. According to Milkha, that fateful day in Cardiff was one of the proudest moments in his career.

After the race, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit came to congratulate him and said that her brother, the Prime Minister, wanted to reward him for making the country proud at the world stage.

“Back in those days we were too simple to know what to ask for and how. I could have asked for 200 acres in Punjab or two to three bungalows in Delhi. But in those times I was very embarrassed to ask for anything,” Milkha Singh told BBC in an interview.

So, in the end what did Milkha ask for?

“All I asked was that the Prime Minister declare a day’s holiday in India – and he did,” Milkha told BBC.

And that is how the country celebrated its first Gold at Commonwealth Games.

File picture of Milkha Singh.

India went on to win three medals at the competition, which included two Golds. Apart from Milkha Singh, Lila Ram made the country proud with a first place finish in wrestling in the heavyweight category.

Milkha returned home to a hero’s welcome. At the airport, military bands greeted Milkha and the entire Indian team. Later, they were invited to meet Prime Minister Nehru.

“Our reception was overwhelming. The Indian team was given a lot of respect everywhere,” Milkha told BBC.

It took India 52 years, since that day in Cardiff, to win their first Gold at the Commonwealth Games in athletics as well as track and field. At home in 2010, India managed to win five gold medals in athletics.

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