Milkha Singh, one of the biggest names in Indian sport and the country’s first track and field superstar, passed away Friday night after a month-long battle with Covid-19. The legendary Indian athlete lived till 91, but the legend and legacy of the ‘Flying Sikh’ will live on forever, continuing to inspire young athletes with his story. Born on 20 November 1929 into a Sikh family in Govindpura, Milkha was orphaned during the partition before he found athletics in his youth, while serving in the army, and went on to rewrite history books in the sports for India. He was hand-picked for further training after finishing sixth in a cross-country race that had around 400 more soldiers running which would kickstart his impressive career.
As a raw talent, Singh competed at the 1956 Olympics games at Melbourne in the 200m and 400m, failing to make it beyond the heats. For Milkha, that trip was not just an experience worth its weight in gold, but huge learning that would eventually transform his young career. The then 27-year-old sprinter was so impressed with Charles Jenkins, the 400m and 4x400m relay gold-medallist at Melbourne, that he went up to him and asked for his training regime. Jenkins obliged, and for the next two years, Milkha followed it to the T. In 1958, his hard work and dedication paid off when he set a national record.
In the 1958 Asian Games Milkha gave India its first track and field medal, winning gold in 200m and 400m at Tokyo. In the process, he also set the Asian record in 200m and the win was all the more special as he piped Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq, who had won the 100m gold with a new Games record. Milkha ran the 200m sprint in under 21.6 seconds to set the record.
With Milkha winning the 400m gold with an Asian record, and Khaliq being the 100m champion, the 200m final was to decide who Asia’s fastest man was. At the halfway mark, Singh and Khaliq were neck-to-neck. The Indian was on the inside lane, with Khaliq two lanes away. It was clearly going to be a fight to the finish. As Milkha tumbled over to the finish line with a muscle pull in his right leg, Khaliq breasted the tape too. 30 minutes of scrutinising pictures from all angles later, the judges declared Milkha as Asia’s best.
At the British Empire and Commonwealth Games the same year, Milkha’s winning run continued as he claimed gold in 400m with a new national record time of 46.6s. Another feather in the cap of the Flying Singh, as he became the first Indian to clinch a Commonwealth Games gold in track and field. The win was monumental as he beat the favourite Malcolm Spence of South Africa going all out for the entire race. He remained the only CWG gold medallist for India for a long time until Krishna Poonia won the top honours in the discus throw at the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi.
At the 1960 Olympics at Rome, richer with experience and records to boots, Milkha broke his own 400m national record with a run of 45.8s, but in a photo-finish for ages, he agonisingly missed the podium by 0.1s. After clocking a world record in the preliminaries in France, and finishing second in all of his 400m races prior to the final, Singh was a favorite for the gold medal. In the final event he set off strongly to the fore but was overhauled by the field and finished in fourth place, this being a decision that required a photo-finish.
In later years, Milkha would look back at the 400m final at the Rome Olympics as a tragic moment in his sporting career. “Since it was a photo-finish, the announcements were held up. The suspense was excruciating. I knew what my fatal error was: After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250 metres. I could not cover the lost ground after that - and that cost me the race," he said. “After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory. I kept crying for days."
The miss was a heart-wrenching one for Milkha who had thoughts of walking away from the sport. However, he came back and in 1962 won two medals at the Asian Games. He overcame rising star Makhan Singh, who had beaten him to gold in the national championships that year. Milkha would, years later, go on to say. “If there is one person I feared on the track, it was Makhan. He was a superb athlete, who brought the best in me”. With Makhan, Daljit Singh, and Jagdish Singh, Milkha won the 4x400m relay final to claim his fourth Asian Games gold.
He represented India in three Olympics from 1956-1964. He was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in recognition of his sporting achievements. In 2013, the life of the legend was immortalized on the silver screen with the movie ‘Bhaaf Milkha Bhaag’ starring Farhan Akhtar.