“Hard work, willpower and dedication;
for a person with these qualities,
the sky’s the limit” – Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh, a five time Asian champion, also known as the Flying Sikh of India was a track-and-field athlete who became the first Indian male to reach the final of an Olympic athletics event and won four Asian gold medals and finished fourth in the 400m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He won five golds in international athletic championships and was awarded the Helms World Trophy in 1959 for winning 77 of his 80 international races. He also won India’s first Commonwealth gold in 1958. He was born in a Sikh Rathore family on November 20, 1929 at Govindpura Pakistan.
Deprived with the memories of killings and violence during the partition of India, Singh began his journey visualising himself as an orphaned and displaced who witnessed his parents and seven siblings murdered during the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. As his father fell, his last words were “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, exhorting his son to run for his life. The boy first ran to save his life, and then to win medals for the nation. Engaged in insignificant crimes to survive in refugee camps of Delhi, he also went to jail for those and failed three attempts at joining the Army. Who could have imagined that a man like that would get the title of ‘The Flying Sikh’? But Milkha Singh earned it and earned it with pride and showed how to be bigger and better than one’s circumstances.
During the partition of India, Singh moved to India from Pakistan in 1947. He started his life by working in a roadside restaurant and took petty crimes and did odd jobs for survival before he discovered his athletic abilities and joined the Indian army. It was in the army that Singh realized his abilities as a sprinter. After winning the national trials in the 200-metre and 400-metre sprints, he was eliminated during the preliminary heats for those events at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Milkha was introduced to sports while serving in the Indian Army where he took a compulsory cross country run which opened the door of special training in athletics for him in 1951. The coach tells Milkha that his shoes will be his good friends in the future. The advice is very much valid for everyone.
Singh won both the 200-metre and 400-metre races at the 1958 Asian Games and later that year he won the 400-metre gold at the Commonwealth Games, which made him India’s first athletics to win gold in the history of the Games. He narrowly lost the bronze medal in the 400 metres at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and missed out on third place in a photo finish. Singh kept possession of his 400-metre gold at the 1962 Asian Games and also took another gold as part of India’s 4 × 400-metre relay team. He made a final Olympic appearance at the 1964 Tokyo Games as part of the national 4 × 400 team that failed to advance past preliminary heats.
Milkha Singh was once persuaded by late former PM Jawaharlal Nehru to keep his partition memory aside and to race against Abdul Khaliq who was also known as the fastest man in Asia (1960) which lead the way to acquire the nickname of ‘The Flying Sikh’. The race for which Singh was best known as he secured the fourth place and finished it in 400 meters in 1960 final Olympic games.
Singh was awarded the Padma Shri (one of India’s highest civilian honours) in 1959. After his retirement he served as the director of sports in Punjab. Singh’s autobiography, The Race of My Life (cowritten with his daughter Sonia Sanwalka), was published in 2013.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a movie based on the biography of Milkha Singh and is the sixth highest grossing 2013 Bollywood film worldwide and became the 21st film to gross ₹1 billion (US$14 million). This movie acclaimed to be the most popular film at National film award where Singh sold the movie rights for just Rupee 1.
On June 18, 2021, Milkha Singh went for heavenly abode at the age of 91 in Chandigarh’s PGIMER hospital after battling COVID-19 for a month. He died less than a week after he lost his wife Nirmal Kaur who is a former national volleyball captain. The nation mourned the end of the flourishing era as it honours nonagenarian sprint icon Milkha Singh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to him by calling him a “colossal sportsperson”.
Milkha Singh, you will be missed.
Visuals by: Rahul Haloi
Article by Puja Mahanta and Pragyamita Saha, The North-Eastern Chronicle.