The Flying Sikh

It was 18th June, Friday morning when I read the news. Milkha Singh was no more. He had succumbed due to Covid-19 complications a few days after the passing away of his wife, Nirmal Kaur. This was a day of mourning for the entire nation, as we have lost an incredible athlete and an inspiring role model whose grit and determination defied boundaries.

But on this day, let’s look back and celebrate the journey of Milkha Singh and make sure his legacy stays immortal in the sands of time. Milkha Singh was born on  November 20, 1929, in Govindpura (now in Pakistan). He lost his parents during the partition. He then escaped to Punjab, where he stayed for some time with the family of his married sister. He was thinking of becoming a dacoit, but his friends persuaded him to get recruited for the Indian Army. During this time, in 1951, he was introduced to athletics. He was recruited by the army for special training in athletics.

Singh represented India in the 200m and 400m competitions of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. His lack of experience meant that he did not progress from the heat stages but a meeting with the eventual 400m champion really helped him learn newer and different techniques for racing.

In 1958, Singh set records for the 200m and 400m in the National Games of India, held at Cuttack and also won gold medals in the same events at the Asian Games. He then won a gold medal in the 400m competition at the Commonwealth Games of 1958 with a time of 46.6 seconds. This latter achievement made him the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India. 

Singh was persuaded by Jawaharlal Nehru to set aside his memories of the Partition era to race successfully in 1960 against Abdul Khaliq in Pakistan, where a post-race comment by the then General Ayub Khan led to him acquiring the nickname of The Flying Sikh. I am sure most of the people who have seen his movie remember this defining moment where Milkha Singh ran like the wind. It showed that talent does not recognize cast, creed, religion. It traverses all these man-made boundaries and shows the world something awe-inspiring and heart stopping. 

Singh was promoted from the rank of sepoy to junior commissioned officer in recognition of his successes in the 1958 Asian Games. He subsequently became Director of Sports in Punjab Ministry of Education a post he retired from in 1998.

Singh was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, following his success in 1958. In 2001, he turned down an offer of the Arjuna Award from the Indian government, arguing that it was intended to recognize young sports people and not those such as him.

Milkha Singh played a very influential role in carving the name of India in all major sports events post independence. The world recognized India and the talent that this country possessed. Milkha Singh will be remembered in the history of a nation as the Flying Sikh, as the Indian who ran and left the track behind in a cloud of dust. His memory and story of courage and hard-work will always remain in our hearts and continue to inspire and motivate us.