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'A true sportsman in every sense'
A top-notch national athlete of his times, Paan Singh Tomar may not have won any medals at the international level, but he gained celebrity status among his peers and seniors at home. With his peculiarities on track and a genial nature off it, it was difficult to ignore him. 'Paana', as his coaches would address him, and his magic was in his rhythm: once his right arm began coming out - almost in a Nazi salute - two steps before the obstacle, everyone knew it was him. "It was so peculiar of him. Almost everybody on the track could make out, " reminisces Joginder Singh Saini, former chief national coach. He adds, "The other athletes from the Army would wait for his hand to come out and start cheering him. Coaches passed instructions while he was on the run, looking to find the rhythm. Once his hand came out, the job was done for them and they would engage in other things. "
The 84-year-old Saini has seen and trained almost three generations of athletes, but says he has not seen a 'perfect sportsperson' till now. Paan Singh could come close. Disciplined, sincere and well built, Paan Singh was very popular in the athletics circle.
Almost everybody knew him as he made it a point to talk to everyone.
Standing more than six feet tall with long limbs, Paan Singh preferred straddling the water jump in a single movement, whereas other athletes stepped on the obstacle to regain balance and add momentum. Still, he would clear the major portion of the pit. It was only in his later years, when fatigue started setting in, that he changed his style and stepped on the obstacle to stay clear of tripping.
"Since he did not step on the obstacle, his timings were better than others but it was primarily his discipline and sincerity that made him a successful athlete, " points out Saini. Paan touched his athletic peak during the four-year period between 1958 to 1961. He won consecutive national titles, eventually taking the place of Maria Ram in the national team and forming a partnership with Chuni Lal, another national athlete from the Jat Regiment.
His popularity among army men and peers was not due to his success but primarily because of his pleasing demeanour and genial nature. "There were no tantrums or even a shade of ego. The instructions were passed on once and he followed it diligently, " Saini says, adding that Paan Singh's humility probably stemmed from his rural background.
Paan Singh shared a great camaraderie with his unit and he was called back by his colleagues and counselled to give up arms but it did not happen, Saini recalls of being told by sportspersons from the army. His wheatish complexion, trimmed moustache and brush-cut hairstyle gave the look of a typical armyman while his pleasing body language made him look like a perfect sportsperson, remembers Saini.
Saini's last meeting with Paan Singh was by pure chance, when the coach and his wife strolling at New Delhi's Janpath in 1962-63, ran into the gangling distance runner. "As usual he enquired about our well-being first and then we talked in general. During the conversation, when I asked him about his training a tinge of frustration came out as he briefly discussed his family matters. I did not meet him after that, " Saini says.
The Netaji Institute of Sports (NIS) had not come up till 1961 but Patiala hosted National games in 1956 and it was there that Paan Singh visited Patiala as an established athlete. There was an aura surrounding him and budding athletes would stand and stare as the national athletes went about their task.
SAI athletics coach Harjit Singh said, "As a 15-year-old boy, I had just taken up athletics and was keen to see him. We came to know that he was training at Government College for Physical Education, Patiala. We went there and saw him training. After that we managed to talk to him for a while and he, in his chaste Hindi, encouraged us to train hard and be sincere. Then he was quite popular but, ironically, his popularity increased hugely once he took up arms, " remembers Harjit.
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