Captain Milkha Singh, also known as The Flying Sikh, was an Indian track and field sprinter who was introduced to the sport while serving in the Indian Army. He is the only athlete to win gold in 400 metres race at the Asian Games as well the Commonwealth Games. He also won gold medals in the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. He represented India in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in recognition of his sporting achievements.
The race for which Singh was best remembered is his fourth-place finish in the 400 metres final at the 1960 Olympic Games, which he had entered as one of the favourites. He led the race to the 200m marks before easing off, allowing others to pass him. Various records were broken in the race, which required a photo-finish and saw American Otis Davis being declared the winner by one-hundredth of a second over German Carl Kaufmann. Singh’s fourth-place time of 45.73 seconds was the Indian national record for almost 40 years.
From beginnings that saw him orphaned and displaced during the Partition of India, Singh has become a sporting icon in his country. In 2008, journalist Rohit Brijnath described Singh as “the finest athlete India has ever produced”.
Milkha Singh was born on 20 November 1929. He was born in a Sikh family. His birthplace was Govindpura, a village 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Muzaffargarh city in Punjab Province, British India (now Muzaffargarh District, Pakistan). He was one of 15 siblings, eight of whom died before the Partition of India. He was orphaned during the Partition when his parents, a brother and two sisters were killed in the violence that ensued. He witnessed these killings.
Escaping the troubles in Punjab, where killings of Hindus and Sikhs were continuing, by moving to Delhi, India, in 1947, Singh lived for a short time with the family of his married sister and was briefly imprisoned at Tihar jail for travelling on a train without a ticket. His sister, Ishvar, sold some jewellery to obtain his release. He spent some time at a refugee camp in Purana Qila and at a resettlement colony in Shahdara, both in Delhi.
Singh became disenchanted with his life and considered becoming a dacoit but was instead persuaded by one of his brothers, Malkhan, to attempt recruitment to the Indian Army. He successfully gained entrance on his fourth attempt, in 1951, and while stationed at the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre in Secunderabad he was introduced to athletics. He had run the 10 km distance to and from school as a child and was selected by the army for special training in athletics after finishing sixth in a compulsory cross-country run for recruits. Singh has acknowledged how the army introduced him to sport, saying that “I came from a remote village, I didn’t know what running was, or the Olympics”.
He was introduced to the sport while serving in the military. He was the only Indian athlete to win an individual gold medal in athletics at the Commonwealth Games until Krishna Poonia won gold in discus at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. He also won gold medals at the Asian Games 1958-1962. Represented India at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in recognition of his sporting achievements.
Singh’s most memorable run is his fourth place in the 400-meter final at the 1960 Olympics, which he had come as one of the favourites. Several records were broken in the race, which required a photographic finish and saw American Otis Davis as the winner by a hundredth of a second over German Carl Kaufmann. Singh’s fourth place with a time of 45.73 became India’s national record and stood for almost 40 years.
Singh resided in Chandigarh. He met Nirmal Kaur, captain of the Indian women’s volleyball team in Sri Lanka in 1955. They were married in 1962. They had three girls and a boy, golfer Jeev Milkha Singh. In 1999 the couple adopted an orphaned seven-year-old boy, whose father, Havildar Bikram Singh, was killed in the Battle of Tiger Hill.
Milkha Singh passed away on June 18, 2021, at the age of ninety-one, due to complications from COVID-19.
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