Milkha Singh, greatest Indian athlete, dies at 91
Legendary sprinter Milkha Singh died of post Covid-19 complications late on Friday night after being admitted to the intensive care unit at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMR), Chandigarh. He was 91. His wife, former India women’s volleyball captain Nirmal Kaur, 85, succumbed to Covid-19 complications at a private hospital in Mohali on June 13. They are survived by their son, the golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, who is 49, and three daughters.
“He fought hard but God has his ways and it was perhaps true love and companionship that both our mother Nirmalji and now Dad have passed away in a matter of 5 days,” read a statement from the family.
Milkha’s health worsened on Friday, barely three days after he was shifted out of the Covid-19 intensive care unit. Hospital sources said that he was running a fever since Thursday and that his oxygen levels had started dropping. The four-time Asian Games gold medallist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist had tested positive for Covid-19 on May 19, but had recently been moved to the non-Covid part of the hospital after testing negative.
Milkha, who was known as “The Flying Sikh”, never lost the crown of being independent India’s greatest track athlete. His life and career was one of remarkable resilience and fulfilment. His coming through the trauma of post-partition riots to rise to athletic eminence made him a household name among Indians, at home or abroad.
If Milkha’s image was still cast as a towering but tragic sporting figure, it was because he missed the 400m bronze at the 1960 Rome Olympics when the athletic world, not just India, had taken a medal as certain.
Despite missing an Olympic bronze by 1/10th of a second in a race where both the gold and silver medallists broke the world record, he remained a colossus in Indian sports, the reference point every time the sporting culture of the country was discussed. That run in Rome still remains the gold standard for Indians. No Indian athlete has won a medal in the 14 editions since then, which has contributed to his enduring legend and served a painful reminder every four years. Milkha Singh was acknowledged as a world-class athlete well before Rome. His victory in the 440 yards (now 400m) at Cardiff in 1958 is still the only individual track medal an Indian has won in the Commonwealth Games (India did win two other gold, in women’s 4x400m relay and discus at the 2010 New Delhi CWG). He was truly world class, producing strong performances in the build-up to the Olympics.
He reigned supreme in Asia at his peak. He claimed a 200-400 double at the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games and defended the 400m at the 1962 Jakarta edition. Going stride for stride with contemporary greats was farthest from his mind when he arrived in Delhi as a shattered teenager, one of thousands of refugees who had barely escaped with his life in the newly created Pakistan. Born in Llayalpur, Faisalabad in present-day Pakistan, he was lucky to survive the atrocities after witnessing the killing of his parents and a sister. Traumatised and malnourished reaching Delhi, he was even jailed briefly for ticketless train travel. Milkha was determined to join the army. He was rejected thrice, and being too frail didn’t help. His never-say-die attitude paid off eventually as he was selected the fourth time. He was sent to the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME), Secunderabad where the newly enlisted jawan’s athletic abilities were spotted after impressing in a routine long run.