Sarwan Singh: An Asian medalist whose achievements were erased by time

Time can be cruel. No matter how awe-inspiring an achievement may be, eventually the hours have a way of catching up with it. And when that happens, it threatens to slowly wipe away the memory of something which was once considered a landmark. Given sufficient time, there is no achievement too big that can withstand its merciless function.

Of course, in the life of Indian athlete Sarwan Singh, the effect of the passing years has been worse than most. Not only was he forgotten by his country, he was pushed to the absolute limits of the dignity that is due to a sportsperson of his stature. It may be high time we changed that. One wonders if that is what robbed him of a chance to compete at the Olympics.

The best race of his life

The year was 1954. The setting, the Asian Games. 14.7 seconds is what it took Sarwan Singh to complete his 110 m hurdle race. There might have been a moment immediately after the race that Singh was optimistic in. One moment of joy at the realisation that all his problems would now be solved. India loves to decorate its heroes in all fields so why should he, a fantastic athlete and an international Gold medalist, be exempt from that rule?

Glory is not timeless. The very medal that was supposed to open up a whole new avenue of possibilities for the athlete was quickly denounced as a “useless piece of metal”. Ignored and forgotten by the authorities, the audience, by the very people he represented at the Asian Games, Sarwan Singh was forced to adopt a life outside sports after retiring from the army in 1970. A life where he was one among the many nameless people one encounters on a regular basis.

The year was 1954. The setting, the Asian Games. 14.7 seconds is what it took Sarwan Singh to complete his 110 m hurdle race. 

And so it came to this. This man, who had proudly won his Gold was forced to drive a taxi to support himself and his family. For 20 years, this was his life. It’s not even that Sarwan Singh’s contribution to Indian athletics ends with his Asiad Gold. It is important to remember that he was the man who spotted the runner in the legendary Pan Singh Tomar. Singh saw him run, introduced him to a coach, ensured he received proper training and the rest is most definitively history.

The figure of Pan Singh Tomar has been popularised in Indian pop culture with a biopic made on this athlete turned dacoit. The little glory that Sarwan Singh has received is largely reflected from the one given to his most notable protege. Despite not competing internationally after a particular age, Sarwan Singh made sure that his legacy lives on, albeit in virtual anonymity.

The next time the question about India’s disappointing performance at the Olympics comes up, remember the treatment given to Sarwan Singh. Remember the life of a man who could have been India’s big name in athletics. He could have gone on to compete in bigger tournaments and brought more glory to his country like he dreamed he would. Remember how India treated him.

Remember Sarwan Singh.


Also read: Pandurang Mhaskar: The untold story of Maharashtra’s Athletics pioneer