India has a proud history of producing exceptional athletes who have made their mark on the global stage. One such name that shines brightly in the annals of Indian sports history is the late Madho Singh – a two-time Olympian, a devoted Sikh, and a retired army man. He remains a symbol of Sikh pride and a beacon of inspiration for Indians across the nation.
Madho Singh, the Olympian wrestler who graced the arenas of the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is remembered for his unique commitment to his faith. Unlike other Sikh athletes of his time, Singh stood firm in his religious beliefs, taking to the wrestling mat with his full beard and hair intact, covered only by a tightly secured cap. This earned him an honour from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 2003 for maintaining his Sikh appearance throughout his sporting career, a feat no other wrestler had achieved in Olympic and Asiad history.
Singh’s performance in Rome was almost akin to the legendary Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh, who won the hearts of the nation with a fourth-place finish in the 400m final. Madho, too, left an indelible mark on the games, finishing fifth in the 79kg freestyle category. His powerful display echoed the strength and resilience of Punjab and India on the global stage.
Despite his impressive career and Olympic achievements, Singh remained a humble man, according to his wife, Kartar Kaur. His humility extended to his post-retirement life, where he embraced the simplicity of rural life, tending to his small landholding after being pensioned off from the army in the rank of subedar. His unassuming nature and down-to-earth personality added to the remarkable character that he was.
However, beneath this humble exterior was an athlete of immense strength and endurance. “His contemporaries would admit that he had great strength,” reminisced P R Sondhi, India’s chief national wrestling coach for the 2008 Olympics. However, the transition from traditional akhara training on softened earth to international bouts on mattresses presented a challenge for Singh and his peers. His nephew, Faqir Singh, revealed how Madho often felt that had he practised on mattresses, he could have enhanced his performance.
Madho Singh’s legacy extends beyond his feats in the wrestling arena. He embodied the spirit of a true Sikh and showcased the power of Indian athleticism at the Olympics. As the largest-ever Indian contingent gears up for the Rio Olympics, let’s take a moment to remember and honour this forgotten hero, who brought great pride to Punjab and India through his commitment to his sport, his religion, and his nation.