When looking at Indian runners, one name sits above the rest. How can we forget the great Indian runner Milkha Singh, aka the Flying Sikh, when we are talking about athletes in India.
As is the case with many Indian athletes, there is a little doubt on the details of where Milkha Singh was born. Some claim his birth date to be November 20, 1929, while other official records state his dates of birth varyingly as as October 17, 1935 and November 20, 1935. It’s known that Milkha Singh was born in Pre-Independence Punjab in current day Pakistan in a Sikh Rathore Rajput family.
One of 15 siblings, Milkha Singh grew up in the shadow of the Independence movement and the sad Partition time, preceding which eight of his siblings died. He was orphaned during Partition when his parents, a brother and two sisters were killed in the violence that took place.
Escaping from the troubles of Punjab, he moved to Delhi in 1947 to live with his sister, where he got into some legal trouble. Reportedly unhappy with his life, he considered becoming a dacoit but was instead convinced by his brother, Malkhan, to join the Indian Army. He eventually enrolled in 1951, and while stationed at the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre in Secunderabad he was introduced to athletics, something that would define his life that point onwards.
“I came from a remote village, I didn’t know what running was, or the Olympics,” he told the BBC in 2008. His achievements started from the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games where he represented India in the 200m and 400m competitions. Inexperienced as he was, he still took inspiration from meeting the likes of 400m champion Charles Jenkins, who spurred him on to achieve greater things. In 1958, Singh set national records for the 200m and 400m at the National Games, and went on to win Gold medals in the same events at the Asian Games. He also won a gold in the 400m competition at the 1958 Commonwealth Games with a time of 46.6 seconds, becoming the first gold medalist from independent India at the Commonwealth Games.
The most memorable story of Singh’s career was of course the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he came the only Indian to have broken an Olympic track record, but as the Age said in 2006 “Unfortunately he was the fourth man to do so in the same race”.
“The gold medal on which I had staked my life eluded me . . . Two sorrowful events will always remain with me: one is Partition, in which my parents were butchered, and the other is the race in Rome, where through my own fault I missed winning the gold for my country.”
Singh’s resume is excellent, despite falling short of the glorious Olympic medal. Boasting 77 wins from 80 races including gold in the 400m at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, he remains India’s greatest track athlete. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his success in 1958, and in 2001, he turned down the offer of the Arjuna Award from the Indian government, arguing that “I have been clubbed with sportspersons who are nowhere near the level that I had achieved” and that the award had become devalued. Ever the outspoken athlete, Milkha Singh’s legacy is not in doubt, and the 2013 biopic “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” made certain a whole new generation of runners is familiar with India’s greatest runner.