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Remembering Milkha Singh: The Sikh who flew past tragedy and towards greatness7 min read

June 20, 2021 5 min read


Remembering Milkha Singh: The Sikh who flew past tragedy and towards greatness7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Milkha Singh. Credit: Twitter

Friday (June 18) was a day of mourning in the world of sports, as ‘The Flying Sikh’ flew to his final abode. Milkha Singh, called one of India’s greatest athletes, passed away at the age of 91 as a result of Covid-19-related complications. Apart from gold medals, national awards and a whole movie made just on his life, Singh also had an interesting life full of ups and downs.

As a tribute to the star sportsman, let’s learn about his life and how he flew to fame.

A childhood amid partition

Singh was born on 20 November 1929 in Govindpura, a village 10 kilometres from Muzaffargarh, which was earlier in Punjab and now part of Pakistan. He had 15 siblings, eight of whom died before the partition of India. Tragically, like many others who lost their families and loved ones during the partition, Singh was orphaned when his parents, a brother and two sisters died in the violence that ensued.

Partition of India

Now here’s a chapter all of us may have learnt in history class, but let’s do a quick recap. The partition of India split British India into the countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. This partition was part of the end of British rule over the Indian subcontinent, called British Raj.

He escaped what had become Pakistan and moved to Delhi in 1947 where he joined the Indian Army in 1951. This was when he was introduced to athletics. He was selected by the army for special training in athletics after finishing sixth in a compulsory cross-country run for new recruits.

 I came from a remote village, I didn’t know what running was, or the Olympics

Milkha Singh credits the Army for introducing him to the world of athletics

A star is born

Milkha Singh with fellow athletes in Germany in 1960

Singh represented India in the 200 metres (m) and 400m competitions of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. However, he was inexperienced, and did not make it very far. In 1958, Singh set records for the 200m and 400m in the National Games of India, held at Cuttack, and also won gold medals in the same events at the Asian Games. He then won a gold medal in the 400m competition at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, making him the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India.

Why is Milkha Singh called ‘The Flying Sikh’?

Milkha Singh defeated Pakistan sprinter, Abdul Khaliq in a 200m race and won a gold medal at the Tokyo Asian Games. Earlier, Abdul Khaliq was the fastest man in Asia. But after Milkha defeated him, he was given the title of ‘The Flying Sikh’ by General Ayub from Pakistan. After competing and winning the 200m International Athletic Competition in Lahore, General Ayub had said to Milkha Singh that he did not run in Pakistan, but flew instead. 

He narrowly lost the bronze medal in the 400m event at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, missing out on third place. This, he had called, his ‘worst’ moment. Singh retained his 400m gold at the 1962 Asian Games and also took another gold as part of India’s 4 × 400m 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 initial rounds.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

Singh’s time in the 1960 Olympics 400m final, which was run on a cinder track, set a national record that stood until 1998 when Paramjit Singh exceeded it on a synthetic track and with fully automatic timing that recorded 45.70 seconds. Although Singh’s Olympic result of 45.6 seconds had been hand-timed, an electronic system at those Games had determined his record to be 45.73.

Milkha Singh and his wife Nirmal, who died just five days before he did. A lesser-known fact is that Nirmal was a former volleyball player and captain of the women’s team. The two first met at a sporting event in Sri Lanka where they were both competing. Their marriage was opposed because they were of different faiths and neither family was supportive of the relationship. She was 85 when she passed away due to Covid-19.
Credit: Hindustan Times

Singh became Director of Sports in Punjab Ministry of Education, a post he retired from in 1998.

He was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, following his success in 1958. In 2001, he turned down an offer of the Arjuna Award from the Indian government, arguing that it was intended to recognise young sports people and not those such as him.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Singh and his daughter, Sonia Sanwalka, co-wrote his autobiography, titled The Race of My Life. It was published in 2013 and inspired the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (run Milkha, run), which was released in 2013 and received much positive response. Singh sold the movie rights for one rupee but he had a condition – a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, which helps poor and needy sportspersons.

Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar portrayed Milkha Singh in the 2013 biopic on the athlete.
Credit: Twitter

Interestingly, the movie’s title is a tribute to the last words Singh’s father spoke to him. As he was dying, he told Singh to flee or he too, would be killed in the post-partition riots. So, Singh ran for his life and boarded a train with other refugees to start a new life.

Amul is known for its ad campaigns and relevant posts. The dairy giant paid tribute to Milkha Singh with a poster that translates to ‘he wrote history not with a pen, but with his steps’.

Singh’s Medals

Gold1958 Asian Games200 m
Gold1958 Asian Games400 m
Gold1958 Commonwealth Games440 yards
Gold1962 Asian Games400 m
Gold1962 Asian Games4X400 m relay
Silver1964 Calcutta National Games400 m

The Indian cricket team on June 19 wore black armbands when they came out for the national anthem before the start of the World Test Championship final at the Rose Bowl, Southampton, as a tribute to Milkha Singh.

Sources: India Today, Britannica, Hindustan Times

One Comment
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