Indian athlete Milkha Singh, nicknamed “The Flying Sikh”, was one of India’s most famous sportsmen and arguably their first to be recognized as a world-class artist.
Coming from a poor rural background, he managed to become a top athlete against all odds, overcoming the tragedy of his childhood when he saw family members being killed amid religious violence at the time of the partition of India.
A 400m runner, he won gold at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, setting a number of records including one at the Games 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 won gold in the 200m in 1958 and the 4x400m relay in 1962.
In 1960, he won the AAA 440 yard title at White City in London, setting a better performance in the championship. His CV also included three appearances in the Olympic Games, Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964.
One of the favorites for the 400m title at the Rome Olympics, he disappointed finishing just fourth, less than a yard from the bronze medalist, a result that would cause him lifelong regrets due to his use. bad tactics.
He also enjoyed success in Scotland, winning the 440yds twice. at the Edinburgh Highlands Games at Murrayfield in 1958 and 1960 and setting Games records, while in 1960 he won the 440 yards at Rangers’ Sports at Ibrox. On this occasion, he broke his own British All Comers record with a time of 46.3 seconds, his performance described in one report as “the outstanding sports event in which he raced beautifully in his usual relaxed style”.
Another Scottish connection came from his son, Jeev Milkha Singh, a leading professional golfer who won the 2012 Scottish Open at Castle Stuart near Inverness.
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Singh was born in Gobindpura, a rather remote village in Punjab, then part of British India, now in Pakistan. One of 15 siblings whose father had a small farm, he had to walk barefoot six miles every day to go to school.
With partition in sight and religious violence erupting in 1947, Singh’s Sikh family was targeted and he witnessed the murder of his parents, a brother and two sisters, as his father shouted at him ” Bhaag Milkha Bhaag ”,“ Run Milkha Run! Later the title of the bestselling biographical film about his life.
He fled to safety in the jungle by running about 15 km and after a few hair-raising scratches he made his way to Delhi, where he spent time in refugee camps and slept at the train station before finding a parent who could welcome him.
He joined the Indian Army in 1952 on his third attempt, having been rejected twice before and it was there that his athletic potential developed. After doing well in a compulsory cross-country race, he was encouraged to progress and given him time and facilities to do so. He later recalled that at that time “he didn’t really know what running was or anything about the Olympics”.
Selection for the 1956 Olympics in the 400m followed, but although eliminated in his race, he befriended American gold medalist Charles Jenkins, who gave him a copy of his d ‘training, which inspired Singh to beat Jenkins’ time. Through the application of discipline, will and hard work, he managed to make it in Cardiff in 1958. “I had a fire burning in me,” he later recalls.
In Rome in 1960, while leading in the 250m, he deemed it wise to lower the pace to save himself from the finish, but ignored his rivals who overtook him, leaving him unable to catch up and finishing 4th behind Spence de South Africa, which he had beaten in 1958 at Cardiff. His son Jeev said he had never forgiven himself for his lack of judgment.
After the Rome Olympics, he was invited to race in Lahore, Pakistan against the country’s top sprinter, Abdul Khaliq, which he accepted despite his reservations about returning to the scene of the Partition Troubles. After his victory as president, General Ayub Khan presented his trophy, he said “You didn’t run today, you flew! “, Hence its nickname,” The Flying Sikh “.
After his athletic career came to an end in the early 1960s, he was appointed sports director in the Punjab’s Ministry of Education, a position he held until his retirement in 1998.
In 1962 he married Nirmal Saini, former captain of the Indian women’s volleyball team, and they had a long and happy marriage, in which they had three daughters, Sonia, Mona and Aleeza and their son Jeev. Nirmal only preceded him by a few days.
In 2013, together with Sonia, he wrote his autobiography, The Race of My Life, which inspired the award-winning film Run Milkha Run, part of the proceeds of which went to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, to help poor athletes develop their careers. . .
All of his medals were donated to the National Sports Museum and he is commemorated by a wax statue at Madame Tussaud in New Delhi, replicating his success in Cardiff in 1958.
On his death, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “He was a colossal sportsman who captured the imagination of the nation and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians. His inspiring personality has endeared him to millions of people.
He is survived by his children and many grandchildren.
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