Milkha Singh (© Getty Images)
World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that India’s three-time Asian Games champion Milkha Singh died on Friday (18) at the age of 91 due to Covid-19 complications.
The former sprinter became a sporting icon in India after making athletics history throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Known as ‘The Flying Sikh’, Singh competed at three Olympic Games, placing fourth over 400m in 1960, and his national record of 45.73 stood for 38 years.
Born in the village of Govindpura, which is now part of Pakistan, Singh became an orphan after his parents and three siblings were killed during the Partition of India. Having witnessed these atrocities, Singh fled the area and moved to Delhi, but never fully settled anywhere. He spent some time with family, followed by a stint in jail for petty crime, and later joined a refugee camp and a resettlement colony.
He was persuaded by his brother to join the army and it was during his time there, in the early 1950s, that he was introduced to athletics. He made swift progress and in 1956, at the age of 21, he was selected to represent India at the Olympic Games in Melbourne.
Although he didn’t progress behind the heats of the 200m and 400m in Melbourne, Singh was inspired by watching his competitors in action and he went on to win gold medals in those disciplines at the Asian Games just two years later. At the Commonwealth Games later that year, Singh picked up another gold medal, this time in the 440 yards, making him the first Indian man to win a Commonwealth gold medal in athletics.
Returning to the Olympic stage in 1960, Singh travelled to Rome with the ambition of claiming a medal. He fell just short of his goal, placing fourth – 0.13 behind bronze medallist Malcolm Spence and 0.67 behind US winner Otis Davis – but was rewarded with a national record of 45.6 (45.73).
Singh successfully defended his Asian Games 400m title in 1962 and anchored India to victory in the 4x400m, setting a Games record of 3:10.2. He went on to compete at a third Olympic Games in 1964, taking part in the heats of the 4x400m.
In 1962 Singh married Nirmal Kaur, captain of India’s volleyball team, and together they had three daughters and a son. In 1998 their son, Jeev Milkha Singh, made national sporting history by becoming the first Indian golf player to join the European Tour.
Just five days before Singh’s death, his wife had died after also contracting Covid-19.
Singh left a lasting legacy in Indian sport, on and off the track. Veteran Indian sports journalist Rohit Brijnath described Singh as “the finest athlete India has ever produced”. In 2003 Singh founded the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, created to assist poor and needy sportspeople. In 2013 he released his autobiography, The Race of My Life, which went on to inspire the critically acclaimed feature film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra was one of many leading Indian sporting figures to pay tribute to Singh.
“We lost a gem,” Chopra said in a tweet. “He will always remain an inspiration for every Indian. May his soul rest in peace.”