1. Bishan Singh Bedi
While Sikhism is listed as the world’s fifth largest organised religion, it has only about 23 million adherents worldwide, most of whom live in the Punjab in India. Nonetheless, there have been plenty of talented sporting Sikhs, and probably none better than Bishan Singh Bedi.
He was not only one of history’s great spin bowlers, but a highly charismatic figure and one who took no nonsense. The left-arm magician was a key member of India’s famed spin quartet of the 1960s and ’70s, claiming 266 wickets in 67 Tests.
As captain, he once declared an innings to protect his players, who were being systematically worked over by the West Indies quicks at Kingston. He has maintained a high profi le since retiring, and his recent comments on the game include the assertion that controversial Sri Lankan spinner Muthiah Muralidaran would make a better javelin thrower than a bowler.
2. Milkha Singh
Dubbed the "Flying Sikh", Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have broken an Olympic track record. Unfortunately he was the fourth man to do so in the same race, the final of the 400 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and he missed bronze in a photo finish. Singh, who had set a world record in the lead-up to the Games, recently recalled that he made a tactical error by slowing at the 250-metre mark to conserve energy, allowing three runners to pass him.
"The mistake that I committed would rankle in my heart till the end of my days. I could not wipe out the defi cit of those six or seven yards on the last 100 metres, even though I gathered superhuman speed," he wrote in an Indian newspaper. "The gold medal on which I had staked my life eluded me . . . Two sorrowful events will always remain with me: one is Partition, in which my parents were butchered, and the other is the race in Rome, where through my own fault I missed winning the gold for my country." Singh’s resume is nonetheless superb, boasting 77 wins from 80 races including gold in the 400 at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, and he remains India’s greatest track athlete.
3. Balbir Singh
The Indian hockey team that ruled the sport after World War II had its fair share of brilliant Sikhs. Dominant among them was Balbir Singh, who was in April this year voted the greatest Sikh hockey player in history. A quick look at his record shows why.
Singh was the centre forward in three gold-medal sides, scoring hat-tricks in the final at both the London and Helsinki Olympics. In Melbourne in 1956 he captained the side but badly broke his finger in the opening
match. He returned for the semi-final and fi nal, where his reputation ensured he would draw most of the defensive pressure, liberating his teammates. He went on to coach and manage the national team. He also established something of a tradition — after him five other Balbir Singhs represented India, although none with the same success.
4. Fauja Singh
As a creed, Sikhism emphasises devotion and discipline. It also values physical prowess, understandable given that it started as a small sect in a turbulent part of the world. Embodying many of those virtues is the remarkable Fauja Singh, the 95-year-old marathon man whose feats have earned him a spot on adidas’ roster alongside David Beckham and Jonny Wilkinson.
Fauja took up running at age 81, when he moved to England after the death of his wife. Eight years later he ran his first marathon, and his times have been coming down since — he holds the world record in the 90-94
age group of fi ve hours, 40 minutes. This year he led the Sikhs in the City relay team, which had a combined age of 400, to a time of 4:43.33 in the Edinburgh marathon. Of the demands of running a marathon, Fauja says: "The first 20 miles are not diffi cult. As for last six miles, I run while talking to God."
5. Harbhajan Singh
Australian cricket fans need little introduction to Harbhajan Singh, aka "The Turbanator". Along with V.V.S. Laxman, Harbhajan was the key to India’s recovery in the magnificent 2001 Test series. He hasn’t since matched the form that brought him 32 wickets in three matches, but especially at home his bowling varies between the threatening and the unplayable.
The turban from which Harbhajan derives his nickname is
a key symbol of Sikhism, and wearing it is regarded as a sacred obligation to the founders of the religion. As distinctive as it is, it has also made Sikhs an easy target of bigotry over the years — during the 2003 New York marathon, Fauja Singh was even heckled with cries of "Hey, Bin Laden".
6. Joginder Singh
Another "Flying Sikh", Joginder Singh made his name on the roads of East
Africa, where he became the first man to win the incredibly testing Safari Rally three times. Born in Kenya in 1932, Joginder developed his mechanical aptitude from an early age working in his father’s garage, but didn’t start competing until he was 26.
He was 33 when he won his first Safari Rally, driving with his brother in a Volvo that could reasonably be described as clapped-out. Singh’s hallmark was reliability — he finished 19 of 22 times in the Safari, an event regarded as one of the toughest to complete. He also scored three top-five
finishes in the Southern Cross Rally in Australia in the 1970s, and was twice named Kenya’s Motor Sportsman of the Year.
7. Ajit Pal Singh
Sikhism emphasises equality, both socially and between the sexes. But compared to their male counterparts, few Sikh sportswomen have garnered international fame. One source noted that Ajinder Kaur, who
captained the Indian hockey team, was among the great centre-halfs — she was described as the "female Ajit Pal Singh".
Perhaps it’s indicative of problems women’s sport has with publicity that there is a good deal of information available about Singh, but almost none about Kaur. Singh, or, if you like, the male Ajinder Kaur, made his debut for India in 1966 and played in the bronze medal teams at the 1968 and
He was revered for his skill and precise distribution, and the highlight of his career was leading India to victory in the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The crash came the following year, when he captained the first Indian team not to win an Olympic medal. Among his many accolades, he was reportedly given a petrol station in Delhi, appropriately named Centre Half.
8. Monty Panesar
Very much the man of the moment, Monty Panesar has the distinction of being the first Sikh to represent England at cricket. His demolition job on Pakistan has made him one of the men to watch in the coming Ashes, particularly if the series is still alive when it gets to the fifth Test at the
Like many other practitioners of the spinner’s art (think Phil Tufnell), he seems to have come equipped with a pair of left feet and possibly some spare thumbs as well. But if he continues to develop at the current rate, he could gain another rare distinction — becoming an English spinner more notable for his skill with the ball than his comic ineptitude in the field and
with the bat.
9. Gurbachan Singh Randhawa
A contemporary of Milkha Singh, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa was India’s flagbearer at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he competed in the 110 metres hurdles. A promising decathlete, Randhawa had been forced to switch to the hurdles because of a shoulder injury. He scraped through the
heats in Tokyo as the fastest fourth-place getter before finishing second in his semi-final.
In the final, he equalled his personal best to run fifth in 14.09 seconds. That
time was a national record that stood until 2001, when another Sikh, Gurpreet Singh, bettered it. "I am very happy he has bettered my record," Randhawa said, before adding, possibly graciously: "I was expecting him to break the record. In fact he should have done it two years ago."
10. Vijay Singh
There are no references to Vijay Singh being a practising Sikh, and his short back and sides (Sikh men are commanded not to cut their hair) and lack of turban suggest that he is, at best, lapsed.
There are quite a few in the international Sikh community prepared to acknowledge him as one of their own, however, with several websites listing him among the great Sikh sportsmen. Most say Singh was "born of Sikh ancestry in Fiji" — perhaps, as Australians are with Kiwis such as Russell Crowe and Phar Lap over the years, they’re just happy to claim the best.