Born in Muzaffargarh district, West Pakistan, in 1935, in a Rajput Rathore family, legendary athlete Milkha Singh earned the title of ‘Flying Sikh’ for his fast speed. He may have missed the medal in 1960 but remains one of the greatest athletes the world has seen and placed himself in the hearts of millions of people across the world. As Rio Olympics 2016 winds up, Varun Bidhuri speaks to Singh, on the performance of Indian players in the Games, the loopholes in Indian sports and where we lack in the race for medals. Edited excerpts from an interview.
Where does India stand in the Olympics?
A. In comparison to previous Olympics we were expecting more medals but it is very sad we did not get many. The results of Beijing and London Olympics were better compared to this year. I appreciate the hard work done by PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. Dipa Karmakar has done a tremendous job. I have participated in three Olympics and seen more than eight but wasn’t expecting that we would be able to make it in gymnastics because our standard of playing in the sport has been very low. Our players were never able to qualify in gymnastic matches but Dipa has made India proud. I think she would be able to do a good job in Tokyo Olympics 2020 and win a medal.
Today, India is well-known in the world and if it really wants to do good in Olympics, I don’t think anybody can stop it. Talent is here.
Many cases of doping have surfaced in the country. Do you think lack of success is leading to desperation among athletes?
Yes, through drugs athletes are searching for success. What Milkha Singh achieved in 10 years, they want to achieve through drugs in six months which is impossible. This is wrong. This not only tarnishes the image of the nation but also destroys the family. They should stay away from drugs and focus on hard work.
Even young sportsmen are taking drugs in school competitions. These drugs cause severe damage. Due to drugs a few sportspersons have even lost their lives, some have become handicapped. Others were stripped of their medals because of doping charges.
Despite the government having increased the budget for food supplements and other facilities for players, the medal tally has not increased. Where are we lacking?
We are lacking in hard work and will power. The level of today’s hard work in comparison to our time is very low. Players do not reach that level. Gopichand has done a brilliant job. We do not lack anything. We have everything from money to latest equipments, stadiums, and coaches. But we need hard work which has to be done by players, coaches as well as the association which must show keen interest. They need to build aim.
According to the 2011 Census, the urban population in India is over 370 million, the equivalent of US and Russia combined. That is a massive pool of talent and one that is getting enriched at a faster rate than almost anywhere else. Will India be able to join the ranks of countries known for various sports other than cricket?
I think if media keeps telecasting cricket 24 hours, then it would be very difficult for us. Because of cricket, the standard of other games has gone down. If the young generation watches nothing but cricket on news channels then nobody will go for athletics, hockey, football or other sports. We should not forget that we have a lot of talent and we can achieve anything we want.
What steps should be taken to promote sports and the welfare of athletes in our country?
The government needs to launch schemes for sports because parents in India don’t want their children to actively participate in sports. They want their children to only focus on studies. Even I and my wife wanted our son, Jeev Milkha Singh, to be a doctor or an engineer but destiny took him to golf and he earned his name in that world. There should be a government scheme assuring players who succeed at national, state or Olympic level, a government job accordingly.
Second, Indian Olympics Association must remain active all the year round. They must organise meetings of all divisions of sports whether football, hockey, athletics or gymnastics, and the sports minister should participate in the meeting. Responsibilities should be handed over to the head of each sports division and start working right away for the 2020 Olympics like China does. I went there and saw their hard work and training camps. The chief of each sports division remains active round-the-clock. I saw how punctually the heads of each sports division do their duty. And this time also, China proved what they claimed.
Third, games should be promoted at the school level. The government should take care of young sportspersons’ education and sports at the same time during their camp visits for playing sports.
Chinese state media recently claimed that the reason why India fails to shine at the Olympics is lack of infrastructure, poor health, poverty, gender discrimination, India’s fading hockey glory and lack of information about Olympics in rural areas. How far do you agree?
No, I totally disagree. Once upon a time there were no stadiums, no sports ministry, no money and no latest training equipment facilities. Despite the lack of basic amenities in sports India produced various sports legends. We have Sakshi Malik, PV Sindu, PT Usha, Anju Bobby George, Abhinav Bindra and sports legends.
Do you think Rajyavardhan Rathore should be new Sports Minister of India?
Yes, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore should be new sports minister of India because he has won an Olympic silver for India in shooting. He knows how to deal with sportspersons and officials.
Is it mandatory for a sports minister to have a sports background?
Yes, it’s necessary to elect a person with a sports background because he knows how to uplift the standard of sports. I will write to the government to make Rajyavardhan Rathore new Sports Minister of India and hand him all responsibilities as soon as possible because we want medals in each game like China.
This year, total participants from India are 118, 35 more than last Olympics but the medal tally has gone down. Who is to blame — the system or players?
I hold players, coaches and the association responsible for this. These three agencies can give you best result. If any of them loses interest, it is very difficult to increase the medal tally. If coaches don’t report on time for practice, it demoralises the players. I appreciate and thank Gopichand who gave us players like Saina Nehwal and
Rio Olympics 2016 has sparked a lot of controversy, including Salman Khan’s appointment as Brand Ambassador, and Shobhaa De’s tweet. How would you react to it?
I have nothing to do with Salman Khan and Shobhaa De.
Will India be able to produce another Milkha Singh?
Yes, by balancing hard work and willpower we will be able to produce another Milkha Singh for India.