HIS parents had often teased him about it. "What use is all that running," they told him, "if you can't even equal the Flying Sikh's record." Last week, Paramjeet Singh, 26, did one better. He broke it. By 0.3 seconds, the lad from Punjab overtook the 38-year-old unbroken national standard Milkha Singh set in the Rome Olympics in 1960 when he clocked 45.73 sec in the 400 m run, missing the bronze by a whisker.
That day of the National Open Athletics meet, Paramjeet had little inkling that he would step into record-breaking territory. When the gun fired in Calcutta's half-empty Salt Lake stadium to kick off the 400 m run, Paramjeet had blasted off the blocks, hotly chased by three runners. As they shot forward in a blur of flashing arms and legs, Paramjeet knew he had to run faster; fellow runner Jata Shankar was breathing down his neck. So the 6-ft 2-in sprinter, known for his fluid, graceful and smooth running action tapped into the reserves of his 71 kg frame, timed his kicks better, and lunged for the finishing line. When he finished, the timer read 45.70 seconds. The Flying Sikh's record had been sent flying out of the window.
On the fringes of the synthetic track, his coach Harbans Singh, a rugged Chandigarh-based 54-year-old Sports Authority of India (SAI) veteran with a master of sports degree from Germany, slumped on the ground when he double-checked the timer. He then ran up to his favourite student, hugged him and cried inconsolably. Years ago, Milkha Singh had rejected his application for a job with the Punjab sports ministry. For the teacher, it was a vindication of his abilities. For the student, it was a giant stride into the record books.
Paramjeet wasn't born a runner. Growing up in his 18-acre farm home in Nainowalljattan, a nondescript village in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, he played some mean kho-kho, kabaddi and volleyball in school. In the dusty playing fields, he also kicked ball in raucous village tourneys, moving positions, netting goals. He even got himself a place in the Punjab volleyball team. And when the wiry young boy decided to go to a sports school 40 km from home, he displayed a flair for the triple jump and snared a seat. In 1991, when SAI coach Harjeet Singh came visiting, saw him doing his workouts, he spotted the runner in him and suggested he switch tracks to the 400 m race. Next day, Paramjeet was doing cross-country runs.
After six months of cross-country and sand running, the boy showed promise: he had timed 51 secs in the 400 m, and taken a CRPF offer to join its ranks as a head constable to beef up its athletics team. He was only 18. Two years later, in 1994, the boy was doing his 400 m regimen in 48.50 sec, mopping up gold medals in countrywide police meets, and becoming the best athlete in the police games. When he clocked 47.13 sec in the Asian Games trials in Luck-now, a national camp selection call for the Hiroshima Games followed. Paramjeet first caught Harbans Singh's eye when the latter was scouring the SAI coaching camp of a dozen athletes in Bangalore. "I thought he possessed all the physical attributes of a 400 m runner. Good height, great sprinting ability. He was also determined and dedicated. I told myself, if anybody could meet Milkha's record, it was this boy." They exchanged notes on breaking the near-four decade-long record. And got down to work.
THE countdown began soon after. At the 1995 SAF games in Chennai, Paramjeet began looking dangerous: he clocked 46.33 secs in a memorable race, only to be overtaken by nifty Sri Lankan Sugath Tillekeratne. Over the next two years, he ran consistently—never clocking below 47 secs. But 1998, clearly, turned out to be his hallmark year: breaking an invitation meet record in Kazakhstan with a 46.93 sec run; running the Federation Cup heats in July in 46.21 sec; breaking through the 45 sec barrier by running the Asian Track and Field Championship in Fukuoka, Japan, in 45.95 sec. He finished fifth, in what ace runner P.T. Usha calls an "extremely memorable run". And finally this. Next on his agenda: a sub-45-second run, which, according to Paramjeet, could possibly bring him a medal in the coming Asian Games. "Nothing's impossible," says he.
But difficult, yes. The 400 m is a strategic race, combining both speed and endurance. Paramjeet runs half-a-dozen hot races on the domestic circuit, but there are very few international runs due to lack of support and sponsorship. Says Paramjeet: "I need more international competition to spur me into breaking more records." (American Buch Reynolds holds the 400 m world record with a scorching 43.27 sec run, while the Asian record is 44 sec.) Paramjeet's also the anchor of the 4x100 m relay—he and his fellow runners Jata Shankar, Ramachandran, and Lijo David hold a national record. He's lucky not to have been afflicted by any major injury, apart from a broken wrist in a mobike crash a few years ago.
As he works his his magic in rickety, almost empty stadia around the country, where only a few sportswriters sit cross-legged on the ground in attendance, Paramjeet knows it's an uphill task for him to bag that elusive international medal. But, says Usha: "He's capable of doing much better. He has good strides and a very relaxed style."And there are a host of others egging him on: his coach, his parents, his volleyball-playing younger brother, and now his fiance, Karnataka-based runner E.B. Shyla, who herself picked up a gold in the 4x100 m relay at Fukuoka earlier this year. The two met at a training camp four years ago, and plan to tie the knot early next year. "I told him," says Shyla, "when you break Milkha's record I'll marry you." That is done. Inspector Paramjeet Singh is a happier man, as he towels off on the track, has a massage, tells his fellow runners how delighted he is, how he'd like to chill out listening to his favourite Daler Mehndi cassette, go for his favourite Amitabh Bachchan flick and watch Chicago Bulls slam dunking in the NBA League on ESPN. But the pressure is on. When he blazes the tracks next time around, the nation will be watching.