Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

Why Milkha Singh Missed Olympic Medal? Sports, Trauma And Sublimation Of Indian Sportsmen

Why Milkha Singh Missed Olympic Medal? Sports, Trauma And Sublimation Of Indian Sportsmen

A question that every Indian asks today -- why our athletes come close to winning a medal and miss it by a fraction?

Milkha Singh's fourth-place finish in the 400m final at the 1960 Olympic Games still remains an iconic moment in Indian sports. Screengrab: Twitter

Years ago I had met Milkha Singh at an event where he was the chief guest. I, a psychologist, was asked to speak on how psychology may help in creating a winning personality in sportsmen. I spoke about the role of sublimation and how it creates a winning personality. When I spoke, I noticed Milkha Singh hearing me with rapt attention. After the event, he asked me if he could speak to me. (Tokyo Olympics | Medal Tally | Sports News)

It was an honor to speak to a legend. His story was an inspiration to our generation. The fact that he didn’t win a medal hardly mattered. What mattered was his grit, the perseveration of a man coming out of the shadows of partition. He had achieved the near-impossible by participating in the Olympics. 

His question was simple. “I found your talk on trauma and sublimation fascinating. Can you tell me why I missed the medal? What was missing in my preparation?” It was a question that he told me had bothered him ever since he lost in the Rome Olympics. “I can’t sleep after all these years thinking why I didn’t win.” I understood his pain. Almost everyone of our generation discussed and thought what went wrong with him in those final moments. It is also a question that arises in the mind of almost every Indian even today when our athletes come close to winning a medal and miss it by a fraction. 

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What had moved him was the story I had told the audience of the African athletes. It was about how African athletes overcame trauma to become great sportspersons, particularly runners and how athletics is a sublimation. 

It was a story that is not so well known to the rest of the world. The first generation of athletes who made international headlines had a peculiar habit. Some of them would look back while they neared the winning line. Was it to see how far or how they were ahead of their competitors? 

The answer that one of them gave was both poignant and touching. He said he was the eldest of seven children and grew up near a White residential colony where the Blacks were forbidden from entering. But on Mondays and sometimes on Saturdays, their servants would come and drop the food near the bin. He and all the children would wait for them and the moment they would drop, he would grab as much as he could and run with other boys chasing him. “I had to be fast enough to run because my brothers and sisters would be waiting for me. So, whenever I would run and come near the winning line I would try to look backwards.” 

His coach had understood this problem and encouraged him to change his visualization that was an impediment and came as a result of the traumatic memory that he carried. As he said he was not alone and many Black athletes carried the same image, they had to be taught to overcome the image associated with slavery, atrocity and dehumanization associated with race. 

There was another hidden issue with the Olympics. For too long the Olympics were a competition where it was mostly Blacks vs Whites who were competing with each other. The Blacks, the colored people, had to break the psychological barrier of winning against their masters. Olympics was an arena where race played itself out, laid bare by its ideology of dominance, the former masters and their slaves with the former trying to establish superiority. The chains that bound one to slavery also bound them from not winning any medals. 

“I wish someone had have told me this many years ago. I would have stopped doing the same,” Milkha Singh said before moving away. I had felt a sense of sadness seeing the great man walk away. He epitomised an era and his winning could highlight the trauma of the partition for the rest of the world and he would have earned the cult status that Jesse Owens or Emil Zatopek or Abebe Bikila did. If only our leaders at that time were sensitive enough and understood the effects of trauma that an ordinary Indian carried, maybe it would have been a different story. 

Sublimation is a process where we convert our inner pain and anguish into a higher achievement towards a bigger goal. Just like an individual, a race or a nation that has suffered a trauma and many an atrocity cannot think of winning and feels chained to the idea of slavery or defeat to realize its potential. It needs a national process of churning, where the collective pain may be said to turn inward converting the collective wound into an outward process of regeneration. 

How do we explain the winning of seven medals in Tokyo Olympics and the mass hysteria of Indian society with each sport played by our athletes and the ups and downs faced by them? 

There is perhaps a possible psychological explanation for this phenomenon. Indian society and through it, Indian sports are going through a process of mass sublimation, increasing at an exponential level, unseen and probably felt by a few. But I believe it may soon take the form of a movement marked by a new emergent national consciousness that will lead to the process of sublimation in many different fields that has the potential to change our society forever. 

All great works of art, music, literature in every era may be said to be emerging from a process of sublimation but nowhere else it is more prominent and poignant than it is in sports and how it has changed society. 

Today, I feel how shallow my interest in cricket was. One of my friends called up to share the news of the winning of the gold medal with me. An avid cricket fan, he had his moment of déjà vu realisation when he said that hearing the national anthem being played in the Olympic stadium was the highest excitement that he had not felt any time else. It is a colonial game that has chained our imagination. He, I would imagine, is not alone. The winning of the medals will turn off a number of youngsters from choosing a career in only cricket and now aim for a medal in Olympics, just in the same way millions of youth moved away from standard careers of becoming an engineer or a doctor. 

The winning of our athletes has perhaps exposed the hollowness in another area. It has told us the India of the future will rise from the small towns, from the dreams, goals and aspirations of the young men and women living there who devoid of any encouragement, have used personal initiative to overcome all odds to realize their dreams. 

Joe Louis, one of the earliest Black boxers, was so traumatized by the violence on the Black race by Whites that he decided to use boxing to undo an injustice. His winning over Whites led to a large number of Blacks turning to boxing, imagining that they are undoing an injustice of the past. I believe that the winning of medals by Indians will also undo for Indians the humiliation, the insult still running deep in the minds of Indians because of slavery and help us finally break away from the limitations imposed by our colonial experience and that will be undone by our achievement through sports alone and no other field. 

I believe I am not the only Indian who may be thinking like this today.

(Dr. Rajat Mitra is a psychologist (specializes in grief work); Professor, Amity University. Views expressed are personal.)


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