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Milkha Singh: The Flying Sikh with a near miss

Milkha Singh lived till 91, yet his legend and legacy will live on forever. With his story, he will continue to encourage young athletes. Here's a tribute to the legend.

Last updated: 20.06.2021
Milkha Singh the Flying Sikh with a near miss

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Milkha Singh, the legendary Indian sprinter, died on Friday as a result of post-Covid problems. At the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, he was receiving treatment. The 91-year-old had tested positive for COVID-19 on May 19 but was placed in home isolation after confirming that he was asymptomatic at his Chandigarh apartment. His demise came just five days after his wife Nirmal passed away from complications related to the COVID.

In the Rome Olympics, he lost the race of his life, placing fourth in the 400m final in 45.6 seconds, 0.1 seconds short of a bronze medal. It's hard to imagine, but he'd slowed down in an egregious error of judgement in order to save himself for the final 150 metres. That miss, one of only two moments in his life that he described as unforgettable, haunted him for the rest of his life. However, despite that, he remains a legendary figure in Indian sports history and will always remain in our hearts. Here’s a tribute to the legendary ‘Flying Sikh’.

Milkha Singh was born in a Sikh family on November 20, 1929. Govindpura, a village 10 kilometres from Muzaffargarh city in Punjab Province, British India, was his birthplace (now in Pakistan). During the Partition, his parents, a brother, and two sisters were killed in the ensuing bloodshed, leaving him orphaned. He was there throughout the killings. He joined the Indian Army in 1951 and was introduced to athletics while stationed at the EME Centre in Secunderabad. After coming sixth in a mandatory cross-country run for new recruits, he was selected by the army for special athletic training after running the 10 km journey to and from school as a child.


He has acknowledged how the army introduced him to sport, saying that "I came from a remote village, I didn't know what running was, or the Olympics".

Singh competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games in the 200m and 400m dashes for India. Due to his lack of experience, he did not advance past the heat stages, but a meeting with Charles Jenkins, the eventual 400m champion at those Games, both motivated him and supplied him with information about training methods. Singh established marks in the 200m and 400m in the National Games of India in Cuttack in 1958. At the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, he won a gold medal in the 400m (440 yards at the time) with a time of 46.6 seconds.

Jawaharlal Nehru urged Singh to brush aside his memories of the Partition era in order to race successfully against Abdul Khaliq in Pakistan in 1960, earning him the nickname "The Flying Sikh" after a post-race comment by then-General Ayub Khan. He finished fourth in the 400m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics in a nail-biting race. With the exception of Otis Davis, Singh had defeated all of the major rivals, and a medal was expected due to his strong performance. However, he made a mistake while he was leading the race by 250 metres, slowing down in the notion that his pace could not be maintained and looked about at his competitors. Singh said that these mistakes cost him the chance to win a medal and that they were his "worst memory." Davis, Carl Kaufmann, and Malcolm Spence all beat him, resulting in a photo finish.

Singh won gold in the 400m and the 4 x 400m relay at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. He competed in the 400-metre dash, the 4 x 100-metre relay, and the 4 x 400-metre relay at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He did not compete in either the 400m or the 4 x 100m relay, and the Indian team of Milkha Singh, Makhan Singh, Amrit Pal, and Ajmer Singh was eliminated in the 4 x 400m heats after finishing fourth.

Singh's time in the 1960 Olympics 400m final on a cinder track set a national record that held until 1998 when Paramjit Singh set a new national record of 45.70 seconds on a synthetic track with fully automatic timing. Following his victory in 1958, Singh received the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian award. In 2001, he declined the Indian government's offer of the Arjuna Award, claiming that it was intended to honour young athletes, not people like him. Singh's medals have all been donated to the country.

One of independent India's most famous sports figures was a tortured man who refused to let it stop him from achieving feats that were unheard of at the time. Running was both his God and his lover to him as he fashioned his own little fairytale out of what could easily have been a tale. Milkha, more than anyone else, was responsible for putting Indian athletics on the map when he won gold in the then-440-yard sprint at the 1958 British and Commonwealth Games. At his request, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared a national holiday after he became the first Indian athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Commonwealth Games. Milkha won 77 of his 80 races in his career. He also claimed to have set a new 'Olympic record' in a race in France at the time, but with only a few records accessible, it's difficult to verify.

Milkha was a culmination of far more than his numerous races and medals. He was also a lot more than that Rome near-miss. He was independent India's first love affair with music, a love affair that this country will never forget. Milkha Singh's final dream was to see an Indian track and field athlete win an Olympic medal. Hopefully, someone in Tokyo will grant the legend's ultimate wish.

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