By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | January 21, 2019
Alex Silveira, the Sprint King from Western Railway, who was part of the famous Indian quartet in the 4×400 m relay along with Milkha Singh, J B Joseph and Joginder Singh, turned 85 yesterday.
As usual, catching up with the man with an amazing track record was a joy. He never fails to amaze me with anecdotes of Indian sporting history from the time he was active in Athletics as an athlete, to a coach and to the current state. Being his neighbour for 30 years and developing the appetite for jogging from him, as we both did the rounds from Marine Lines to Nariman Point every morning, till the time I moved out, I have been amazed at the friendship we have shared, despite the age gap and now the distance. That’s the beauty of Alex, he cuts through the age barrier with his ready wit, charm and ‘straight-to-the-face’ talk. If you can handle that, well, then welcome to the gang!
Surrounded by family and a few close friends, sports can never, ‘not be a topic of discussion’ whilst sitting with Alex. He has faced first-hand ‘selection bias’, which he calls a farce, has been keenly following the current state of sports in our country and calmly says, “The state of sports in India today is worse than what it was during our time, especially the selection process and official hara-kiri,” he laughs.
He can afford to laugh now. But back then, way back in the 1950s, he was shell-shocked when he was ignored for two successive Olympics: 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome. The selectors played such dirty games with him and a few others that the young 23-year-old did not know what hit him, or what corrective action to take. “We were too naive,” he reminisces, the purpose still intact in his stride, despite age-related issues.
Going back in time, Alex, who has represented India at the Third Asian Games in Tokyo in 1958, and the Cardiff Commonwealth Games, the same year, besides many other International Meets, speaks about the 1956 Games. “Five athletes were provisionally selected from Bombay—Mary D’Souza, Lavy Pinto, Violet Peters, Mary Leela Rao and me. We were in Europe undergoing training when we received a telegram to report to Patiala for the final trial. Lavy, Violet and Mary decided to stay back. Leela and I came back to Bombay and reported at Patiala. Here is where the farce unfolded,” reveals Alex.
“The relay team was asked to run the 400m in 47.7 secs individually, and not as a team since the athletes that would represent India were already selected. They knew we would not be able to touch that timing and wanted us out. Milkha and Joginder who were with the Services were told to run or else… Milkha clocked 47.9 seconds and was sent for the individual event. They were afraid to run us in the relay as it would upset the applecart of the selection committee who had already selected ‘their’ athletes!”
But four years later, a bigger jolt was to follow.
Alex, Milkha, Daljit Singh and Makhan Singh qualified for the 4x400m relay team. Makhan and Daljit were in Germany representing Services and were to join the Indian Contingent in Rome before the start of the Olympics. Alex was in India in the same camp as the Rome-bound hockey team in Srinagar. He came to Bombay from Srinigar awaiting final instructions but for some unknown reasons, the Indian contingent left for Rome without him. Likewise Makhan and Daljit were left high and dry in Germany.
“I later learnt that three hockey players—Erman Sebastian, Kulwant Arora and Balkishen Singh—were fielded in the Track and Field Event! Apparently they wanted to ensure the hockey team had quality players during practice. They could not win the Gold inspite of this,” laughs Alex. The hockey team won the silver that year.
Heartache apart, Alex also speaks about how psychology plays an important part in the life of a sportsperson and how he has used that on his wards who he has trained in his illustrious career.
“I learnt how to psyche an athlete from my foreign coaches,” smiles Alex the enthusiasm still vibrant in his speech and body language. Along with five other athletes, Alex was sent to Czechoslovakia for a six-week training camp. There, they participated in various meets around the country. The 400m race was Alex’s pet race but for one particular meet, the Czechoslovakian Coach who saw the spark in Alex entered him for the 800m race. He then took him to the table laden with all the trophies and pointed to a beautiful cut-glass trophy and said to him, “This is yours,” and walked off.
“I was wondering what he meant. He never came back to me and all the time during warm-up I was thinking about that trophy and subconsciously saying to myself, ‘this trophy is mine, nobody is going to take it’. I won the race,” laughs Alex adding, “Among all my trophies, I prize this the most.”
Heartache and laughter, they all go hand-in-hand with Alex, but is the laughter that overrides all other emotions for the man who has been through much in life!
That’s the spirit of a true athlete. At 85, he has the zest of a youngster ready to bolt off the blocks!