The Bollywood flick ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’, based on the life of the legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh, was an international super hit. It grossed over $15 million. In our country, where the young generation is largely unaware of Pakistan’s sports heroes apart from cricketers, the biopic aroused curiosity about one Abdul Khaliq.
Milkha’s duels with Pakistani sprinter Abdul Khaliq over 200 metres race were given a special place in the movie.
Born in 1933 in Chakwal, a small North Punjab town, Abdul Khaliq was fascinated by kabaddi, the traditional sport of rural Punjab. He was a man of medium height but had very strong thighs. His forte was speed and it was extremely difficult to catch him in the kabaddi circle.
Those days Brig Rodham, an Englishman, headed the Army Sports Board. Athletics was his first love. Rodham was always on the lookout for talented youngsters. He picked Khaliq from Chakwal’s kabaddi fields and recruited him in the army. The young soldier immediately showed aptitude for sprints.
Progressing through the various tiers of army meets, he was soon the best in the country. In his first appearance in a major international meet, Khaliq astonished everyone -- winning the 100 metre gold at the 1954 Asian Games in a new record time of 10.6 seconds. This achievement earned him the title of the Fastest Man of Asia.
Pakistan’s athletics officials then set their eyes on the 1956 Olympics. In the intervening years, Khaliq gained much needed experience by participating against the world’s top sprinters.
He was at his peak in the Olympics’ year. The first Indo-Pakistan athletics meet was held in New Delhi in March 1956. The highlight of the meet was the ‘Sprint Double’ for Khaliq. In 100 metres, he clocked 10.4 seconds, thus equaling the timings of the gold medallist at the 1952 Olympics. His 21.4 seconds in 200 metres was an Asian record.
Indian media reported, "The country witnessed world class sprinting for the first time."
The Melbourne Olympics were Khaliq’s and indeed Pakistan athletics’ finest hour.
Athletics have always been the showpiece discipline at the Olympics; and sprints draw special attention. Khaliq got through the first two rounds of the 100 metres to qualify for the semi-finals where he was narrowly beaten to the 4th place and couldn’t make it to the final.
If his show in the shorter sprint got him noticed, Khaliq’s performance in the 200 metres astounded the world. He made to the semi-finals in a sensational manner, winning both the heats in 21.1 seconds, the best time for 200 metre at the 1956 Olympics in the first two rounds.
The pundits predicted an Olympic medal for the Pakistani dynamo. But luck deserted Khaliq in the semi-final. He couldn’t repeat the form of the previous rounds and finished 4th in a photo finish. Thus he again narrowly missed the qualification for the final.
Had he repeated the timings of the first two rounds, he would have won the semi-final because 21.1 seconds was the best time in those Olympics barring the final.
It is pertinent to mention that those days only six athletes competed in the sprints’ finals at the Olympics. Only two editions later, in 1964, the number was increased to eight. Had this been in vogue, Khaliq would have run in the finals of both the sprints.
He overcame the great disappointment to earn glory in his second appearance at the Asian Games. In 1958, Khaliq retained the 100 metre crown and thus also the title of the fastest man of the continent.
It was at this Tokyo Asiad that Milkha Singh made his first mark on the international scene. The Indian had won the 400 metres. Cometh 200 metres, both Khaliq and Milkha were hot contenders. A second gold medal for either would have also made the winner, the best athlete of the Asiad 1958. Khaliq had a splendid start and took the lead but the Sikh narrowly edged him out at the end. However, he returned with a full set of medals; was a member of the bronze medal winning Pakistani quartet in 4 x 100 metre.
In the movie "Bhag Milkha Bhag" much was made of his loss to Milkha in the 200 metres in the Indo-Pak athletics meet in 1960.
Khaliq’s peak years were 1954-58. In 1960, he was past his best, while Milkha was at his best -- later that year he finished 4th in 400 metres at the Olympics.
Milkha had got eliminated in the first round at the 1956 Olympics where Khaliq had done so well. Still, Khaliq was good enough to win the 100 metre race at that athletics meet at the Lahore stadium, later renamed Qaddafi Stadium.
Both were great athletes who dominated their favourite events at the Asian level. By winning the 100 metre at both the 1954 & 1958 Asiads, Khaliq remained the ‘Fastest Man of Asia’ from 1954-1962. No surprise, he was repeatedly referred as the ‘Asian Storm’ in the Milkha biopic.
Whereas Milkha came closest for any male South Asian to win an Olympic athletics medal, Khaliq was the only one from this region to shine in two events at the same Olympiad.
The last reunion of the two legends was set in very tragic circumstances. Khaliq was taken a prisoner in the 1971 war. When Milkha came to know this, he visited Khaliq in the prisoner of war camp. Milkha recalls this meeting with these words: "Tears appeared in the eyes of both."
Khaliq was well-looked after by the Pakistan army. His achievements on the track earned him out of turn promotions, and he retired in the rank of Honorary Captain -- the highest a sepoy could get.
When the great athlete passed away in 1988, his family was allotted a house by the Army.
The Indians produced a biopic on ‘the flying Sikh’. Pakistanis should at least make a bio documentary to honour ‘the fastest man of Asia’.