Indian athlete Milkha Singh, nicknamed “The Flying Sikh”, was one of India’s most celebrated sportsmen and arguably their first to be recognised as a world class performer.
From a poor rural background he succeeded in becoming a top athlete against the odds, overcoming tragedy in his early life when he witnessed family members being killed amid the religious violence at the time of the Partition of India.
A 400m runner, he won gold at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games at Cardiff setting a number of records including a Games one and a British All Comers and National record. He also won gold over the same distance at the Asian Games in 1958 and 1962, while he collected golds at the 200m event in 1958 and the 4 x 400ms relay in 1962.
In 1960 he won the AAA’s 440yds title at London’s White City, setting a championship best performance. His CV also included three appearances at the Olympic Games, Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964.
One of the favourites for the 400m title at the Rome Olympics, he disappointed by only finishing fourth, less than a yard behind the bronze medallist, an outcome that would cause him lifelong regret due to his employing the wrong tactics.
He also enjoyed success running in Scotland, twice winning the 440yds. at Edinburgh Highland Games at Murrayfield in 1958 and 1960 and setting Games records, while in 1960 he won the 440yds at the Rangers’ Sports at Ibrox. On that occasion he broke his own British All Comers’ record with a time of 46.3s., his performance described in one report as “the outstanding event of the Sports in which he ran magnificently in his usual relaxed style”.
Another Scottish connection arose through his son, Jeev Milkha Singh, a top professional golfer who in 2012 won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart near Inverness.
Singh was born in Gobindpura, a fairly remote village in the Punjab, then part of British India, now in Pakistan. One of 15 siblings whose father had a smallholding, he had to walk barefoot six miles every day to attend school.
With Partition in the offing and religious violence breaking out in 1947, Singh’s Sikh family were targeted and he witnessed the killing of his parents, a brother and two sisters, as his father shouted to him, ”Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, “Run Milkha Run!,” later the title of the successful biographical film about his life.
He escaped to safety in the jungle by running some 15km and after some hair-raising scrapes made his way to Delhi, where he spent time in refugee camps and sleeping in the railway station before locating a relative who could take him in.
He joined the Indian Army in 1952 at his third attempt, having been rejected twice previously and it was there that his athletic potential developed. Having acquitted himself well in a compulsory cross country run he was encouraged to progress and given time and facilities to do so. Later he recalled how at that time “he didn’t know really what running was or anything about the Olympics”.
Selection for the 1956 Olympics at 400m followed but although eliminated in his heat, he befriended the gold medallist American Charles Jenkins, who gave him a copy of his training schedules, which inspired Singh to beat Jenkins’ time. Through the application of discipline, willpower and hard work, he succeeded in doing so in Cardiff in 1958. “I had a fire burning inside me”, he recalled subsequently.
At Rome in 1960, when he was leading at the 250m mark, he thought it wise to drop the pace to preserve himself for the finish, but misjudged his rivals, who overtook him, leaving him unable to catch up and finishing 4th behind Spence of South Africa, whom he had beaten in 1958 at Cardiff. His son Jeev commented that he never forgave himself for his lack of judgement.
After the Rome Olympics he was invited to run in Lahore in Pakistan against the country’s top sprinter Abdul Khaliq, something he agreed to despite reservations over returning to the scene of the Partition troubles. After his victory as President General Ayub Khan presented his trophy he stated “You did not run today, you flew!”, giving rise to his nickname, “The Flying Sikh”.
Once his athletics career began drawing to a close in the early 1960s, he was appointed Director of Sports in the Punjab Ministry of Education, a post he held until retiral in 1998.
In 1962 he married Nirmal Saini, a former captain of the Indian womens’ volleyball team, and they enjoyed a long, happy marriage, during which they had three daughters, Sonia, Mona and Aleeza and son Jeev. Nirmal predeceased him only by a matter of days.
In 2013, with Sonia, he wrote his autobiography, The Race of My Life, which inspired the award-winning film Run Milkha Run , a share of whose profits were dedicated to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, to assist poor sports people develop their careers.
All his medals were donated to the national sports museum and he is commemorated by a wax statue in Madame Tussaud’s in New Delhi, replicating his 1958 Cardiff success.
On his death Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “He was a colossal sports person who captured the nation’s imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians. His inspiring personality endeared him to millions.”
He is survived by his children and numerous grandchildren.
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