Milkha Singh: One of India’s first sporting superstars

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Singh established himself as a formidable competitor in the 200m and 400m sprints (AP)
Singh established himself as a formidable competitor in the 200m and 400m sprints (AP)

Milkha Singh, who has died aged 91, was the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and represent his country at the Asian Games and three consecutive Olympics.

Popularly known as “The Flying Sikh”, for his speed and distinctive running style, Singh was one of India’s first sporting superstars and an inspiration to many who followed his career. To this day, the simile “like Milkha Singh” is used in India to denote high speed.

Milkha Singh was born in 1932 in the village of Govindpura in pre-partition India, now a part of Pakistan. He was one of 15 children. His mother, father and several other family members were killed in 1947 during a violent riot that overtook their village at the time of partition. Interviewed later, he recalled: “I can’t forget those days. Shivers go through my body. I cry as I remember what happened with us. Villagers had no idea that India and Pakistan were being created and soon they’ll have to leave their own houses, land and livestock and go somewhere else to settle.”

Singh joined the Indian Army in 1951 and was soon introduced to athletics, running first at long distance, then establishing himself as a formidable competitor in the 200m and 400m sprints. Just five years later he achieved his debut on the world stage, representing India at the Melbourne Olympics. It was there that he met the American sprinter Charles Jenkins, who, as Singh recalled, “gave me his coaching schedule, for hill running, for sprints, for starts, for weights ... And I decided unless I beat his record [46.7 seconds] I won’t stop.”

The year 1958 saw Singh at his peak, competing at two major sporting events. Running in the 400m he won gold at the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff, and was victorious at the Asian Games in Tokyo, gaining gold at both 200 and 400m.

He went on to run for India at the Rome Olympics of 1960 – narrowly missing a bronze medal – and 1964 in Tokyo. Remembering the event in Rome, he later told an interviewer: “I started the race very well and was leading at 250m. A strange thought came to my mind, ‘Am I running too fast? Will I be able to finish the race with this speed?’ So I slowed down and dropped my speed and the rhythm with which I was running ... The other athletes who were trailing overtook me and I was left yards behind them.” Although he came fourth, Singh broke the Indian national 400m record that day, with a time of 45.73 seconds, a record he would hold for the next 38 years.

Singh went on to run for India at the Rome Olympics of 1960 and 1964 in Tokyo (AFP)
Singh went on to run for India at the Rome Olympics of 1960 and 1964 in Tokyo (AFP)

Upon retirement from competitive sport, Singh became director of sports at the Punjab Ministry of Education, until 1998. He established the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, which seeks to provide financial help to poorer athletes, allowing them to progress in their chosen sport.

Celebrating such an eventful life, the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) was released in 2013, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. The film’s title recalls the athlete’s father speaking his last words, urging his son to flee the violence and save himself. An autobiography, The Race of My Life, assisted by his daughter Sonia Sanwalka, was published the same year.

Singh had tested positive for Covid-19 in May, was admitted to hospital earlier this month and died from complications of the virus. His wife, the former national volleyball captain Nirmal Kaur Saini, who had also contracted Covid-19, predeceased him on 13 June.

Prime minister Modi said in tribute: “In the passing away of Shri Milkha Singhji, we have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation’s imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians. His inspiring personality endeared himself to millions.”

He is survived by his son Jeev Milkha Singh – a professional golfer – and his daughters Dr Mona Singh, Sonia Sanwalka and Aleeza Grover.

Milkha Singh, athlete, born 20 November 1929, died 18 June 2021

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