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It was thunder on cinder
A fugitive from the law who took to the gun after his days as the country's foremost steeplechase athlete were over, Paan Singh Tomar met the inevitable fate in 1981. Those who take to the gun often die by it. Tigmanshu Dhulia's biopic, starring Irrfan Khan, reportedly has received rave reviews at film festivals abroad. But it would be a travesty if Paana, as the steeplechaser-turned-outlaw was known to his fellow army athletes in the late 1950s and early '60s, is remembered only for his life as a desperado in the inhospitable Chambal ravines.
What follows is an attempt to provide a whiff of the times when Paan Singh won his many races on the cinder track of the National Stadium, which was the hub of athletic activity in the Capital in the early post-colonial years when most places in the city were within cycling, if not walking, distances.
Even on days when track and field meets were not actually staged there, people would still keep dropping by at the stadium to catch a glimpse of star athletes in training - not just track athletes but also cycling stars like Madan Mohan and Shyama Bhalla.
The concrete cycling slopes around the cinder track, built for the inaugural 1951 Asian Games, were still very much there. On their way home after classes at the university, athletes like marathoner Ranjit Bhatia and the twin Oberoi sisters Man Mohini and Inder Mohini, to mention just a few, made it a point to sweat it out there, with coach Joginder Singh Saini always available for guidance.
It was in such an atmosphere that Paan Singh burst on the scene in 1958, clocking 9 mins 12. 4 secs to erase the previous record, held, if one remembers right, by another army man called Munnuswamy. In the next few years, Paan Singh made his parent unit, the Bengal Engineer Group, Roorkee, famous in athletic circles as he dominated the grueling event of 28 36-inch barriers and seven water jumps with his typically long, loping strides, improving his own records year after year till he touched his best of 9:0. 2 in 1961. Slim and tall like Paan Singh himself, the fit-looking Irrfan has been an apt choice to portray the steeplechaser on celluloid. We are told Irrfan, 49, underwent a rigorous two-month stint of coaching before the actual shooting of the biopic, so you could say the actor has truly earned his fee with honest sweat.
Those mid-20 th century years were the most famous times in the history of army sport. There was much else apart from the steeplechase running of Paan Singh and his famous trademark raising of his arm as he approached the first obstacle to signal that he was getting his strides right. Who can forget Milkha Singh, running in the singlet of the Southern Command, for one? Then there were the other talented quarter-milers like Makhan Singh and Joginder Singh and 800 metres star Sohan Singh, not to forget long jumper Virsa Singh and hurdlers Srichand Ram and Amritpal Singh and throwers like Parduman Singh. The list is long.
Athletic meets were then important dates in Delhi's sporting calendar. Old-timers will still remember the dual meets involving Services and Railways and also the Services-Railways-Police triangulars at which the cream of the country's track and field talent vied for honours, the venue shifting to the Karnail Singh Stadium when it was not the usual National Stadium cinder.
They were the years when Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 110 m hurdles finalist, was also on the rise, to be followed by Shriram Singh of Rajputana Rifles, the 800 m finalist at the Montreal Olympics, who would be seen training with single-minded dedication under coach Ilyas Babar.
Added inspiration came in the shape of visits by international athletic icons like Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopek and his javelin-throwing wife Dana Zatopkova, and polevaulting parson Bob Richards. Those visits would be talked of long after they were over. They were straightforward athletes willing to rub shoulders with the Delhi's aam athletes, answering their curious queries in simple language. Zatopek's reply to a young student wanting to know the training secret of the 'Human Locomotive' from the then Czechoslovakia will be there for all time to come. "I run, I run and I run, " Zatopek told his unknown young athlete.
But back to Paan Singh. Praising the steeplechaser as an athlete, Milkha remembers him as "a man who good company on the tours we were together. He was disciplined and jovial with a good sense of humour. " He would rather not talk about the reasons or circumstances which led to rebel against the law. It is for society and the authority against which he became a rebel or baaghi, to use the description used in the Chambal ravines, to find a satisfying answer. One look at the terrain there will lead you to believe that his steeplechasing skills must have come in handy even after he quit the track.
(Veteran sports journalist Krishan Datta has been writing on Indian athletics since the early 1950)
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