Surat Singh Mathur: The first from independent India to complete an Olympic marathon
The world remembers it as the 1952 Helsinki Olympic marathon as the one on which Emil Zatopek (Czechoslovakia) completed an unlikely treble, including 5000m and 10,000m, And India has reason to recall it as the one in which Surat Singh Mathur became the first from independent India to complete an Olympic marathon.
Chhota Singh, who dominated the Indian marathon scene by winning seven National titles in-a-row from 1942, dropped out before the 30km mark in the London Games in 1948. Of course, the likes of Phadeppa Dareppa Choughule and Sadashiv Datar had taken part in the 1920 Games, Mahadeo Singh in 1924 and CSA Swami in 1936 but they represented British India.
Surat Singh Mathur’s first taste of an international event came in the 1951 Asian Games in Delhi after he finished second in the National Championship in Ludhiana. Chhota Singh drew on his experience to beat a fancied Japanese, Katsuo Nishida to the gold medal while Surat Singh Mathur took the bronze medal in a time of 2:53:49.8.
It was in 1952 that Surat Singh Mathur claimed the first of his two gold medals in the National Championships, winning in Chhota Singh’s absence and earning the right to go to the Olympic Games as the India representative in the gruelling event.
Helsinki chose an out-and-back course, which meant that the strong tail wind in the first half challenged them on their way back. Barely 22, Surat Singh Mathur endured pain but finished 52nd in 2 hours 58 minutes 9.2 seconds, ahead of Italy’s Artidoro Berti and ensuring that all finishers came home inside three hours in an Olympic marathon for the first time.
Chhota Singh returned the next year to set a National Record with a 2:33:24.4 run in the National Championship in Jabalpore(as Jabalpur was then known). After finishing third in that race, Surat Singh Mathur finally beat his formidable rival in Delhi in 1954, winning in 2:48:06.6, his personal best.
It is ample testimony to his determination that having won the National Championships marathon in Madras in 1952 when the redoubtable Chhota Singh did not race, Surat Singh Mathur’s conquest in Delhi showed that his Madras victory was no flash in the pan. Unfortunately, the second Asian Games in Manila did not include the marathon in its schedule.
On the evidence of his two gold, one silver and one bronze in the National Championships, besides the Asian Games bronze, it can be said that he was pretty successful in his four-year stint at the top. The Delhi-based runner did not represent the country again, but he sustained his interest in the sport till the early 60s.
He was part of two Olympic Games torch relays, four decades apart, in Delhi. Having served as a teacher and a Headmaster, Masterji, as he was called, moved to being special coach in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in 1977. He was honoured by the Olympic Council of Asia during the inauguration of its headquarters in Kuwait City in 2009.
Now 90, Surat Singh Mathur still engages in social activities in Majri Karala village, located in north-western Delhi. As recently as on Independence Day last year, he was the cynosure at the Flag-hoisting ceremony in his village where he is leading a quiet and contented life, feeding the peafowl which visit his home.