Milkha Singh, sprinter known as ‘the Flying Sikh’ who ran for India at three Olympics – obituary

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Milkha Singh in 1961 - AP
Milkha Singh in 1961 - AP

Milkha Singh, who has died of Covid-19 aged 91, fled from his birthplace after his parents were slaughtered in the partition of India in 1947; he became a “son of the Indian Army” known as the Flying Sikh due to his brilliance at athletics.

In India he was said to be “no less popular than Pele in Brazil or Maradona in Argentina”, and in 2013 a Bollywood biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – “Run, Milkha, Run”, the last words he heard his father scream before his parents were butchered – filled Indian cinemas.

One of 15 children of a farmer, Milkha Singh was born into a Sikh family on November 20 1929 in a remote village in the western Punjab, now in Pakistan. “I was good at running because we lived 10km from school,” he recalled. “So every day we would run 10km there and 10km back.”

Milkha Singh, right, with his Indian teammate Mohinder Singh, meets the Duke of Edinburgh at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff - S&G and Barratts
Milkha Singh, right, with his Indian teammate Mohinder Singh, meets the Duke of Edinburgh at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff - S&G and Barratts

In 1947, when the Punjab was split between India and Pakistan, he witnessed his parents’ throats being slashed and a brother and two sisters being hacked to death in the communal violence that ensued. “If I hadn’t run I would have been murdered,” he recalled. “I wore the same bloodsplattered clothes for 10 days.”

After hiding in the jungle he stowed away on a train bound for Delhi. After a month living at Delhi railway station he lived briefly with the family of a married sister, spent time at a refugee camp and a resettlement colony and considered becoming a dacoit (outlaw) before deciding to apply for the Indian Army. He failed three times before he was accepted in 1951.

Singh set off on his athletics career not because he cared about sport but because he wanted the extra food that was offered to members of army teams.

Singh wins the final of the 440 yards from Robbie Brightwell (No 2) at the AAA Championships at White City in 1960 - S&G and Barratts
Singh wins the final of the 440 yards from Robbie Brightwell (No 2) at the AAA Championships at White City in 1960 - S&G and Barratts

In 1958, after setting records for the 200m and 400m in the Indian National Games, Singh won gold medals in the 200m and 400m at the Asian Games in Tokyo followed by a gold in the 400m at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. “The Queen put the medal on me, and the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent me a message,” he recalled. “To receive that recognition was a big thing.”

In 1960 he was asked by Nehru to return to Pakistan to compete against the Pakistani star Abdul Khaliq in the 200m at an international event in Lahore. At first he was reluctant to go, but he was eventually persuaded and was duly presented with the gold medal by the president of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan, who declared: “Pakistan awards you the title of the flying Sikh.”

Milkha Singh lines up next to his Madame Tussauds waxwork model in 2017 - Newscom/Alamy
Milkha Singh lines up next to his Madame Tussauds waxwork model in 2017 - Newscom/Alamy

Later the same year he had hopes of winning India’s first track medal at the Rome Olympics, having set a British record of 46.5 seconds in the AAA Championships at White City. But he started the race too fast and, when leading at 250m, slowed down and looked around at his fellow competitors. The mistake cost him the race and he was passed by three other runners in the home straight.

Nonetheless his fourth-place finish in 45.6sec set an Indian national record that stood for almost 40 years. As well as the Rome Olympics, he also raced at the Melbourne Games in 1956 and in Tokyo in 1964.

After retiring from athletics, Singh (who also won gold in the 400m and 4x400m relay at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta), became director of sports at the ministry of education in Punjab, retiring in 1998.

In 1962 he married Nirmal Saini, who had captained the Indian women’s volleyball team and with whom he settled in Chandigarh. She died five days before her husband, also of Covid-19. They are survived by their son, the professional golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, by three daughters and by an adopted son.

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

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting