Milkha Singh (birthdate uncertain, between 1929 and 1935), also known as The Flying Sikh, is an Indian former track and field sprinter who was introduced to the sport while serving in the Indian Army. He was the only Indian athlete to win an individual athletics gold medal at a Commonwealth Games until Krishna Poonia won the discus gold medal at the 2010 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 is 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 till the 200m mark 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”. In July 2012, The Independent said that “India’s most revered Olympian is a gallant loser”.
Milkha Singh was born on 21 November 1929 according to records in Pakistan, although other official records various state 17 October 1935 and 20 November 1935. He was born in a Rajput family of Rathore clan. 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 a brother, 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 new 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 represented India in the 200m and 400m competitions of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. His inexperience meant that he did not progress from the heat stages but a meeting with the eventual 400m champion at those Games, Charles Jenkins, both inspired him to greater things and provided him with information about training methods.
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 (440 yards at this time) competition at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games with a time of 46.6 seconds. This latter achievement made him the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India. Before Vikas Gowda won the gold in 2014, Milkha was the only Indian male to have won an individual athletics gold medal at those Games.
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. Some sources say that he set a world record of 45.8 seconds in France, shortly before the Rome Olympics in the same year but the official report of the Games lists the record holder as Lou Jones, who ran 45.2 at Los Angeles in 1956. At those Olympics, he was involved in a close-run final race in the 400m competition, where he was placed fourth. Singh had beaten all the leading contenders other than Otis Davis, and a medal had been anticipated because of his good form. However, he made an error when leading the race at 250m, slowing down in the belief that his pace could not be sustained and looking round at his fellow competitors. Singh believes that these errors caused him to lose his medal opportunity and they are his “worst memory”. Davis, Carl Kaufmann and Malcolm Spence all passed him, and a photo-finish resulted. Davis and Kaufman were both timed at a world-record breaking 44.9 seconds, while Spence and Singh went under the pre-Games Olympic record of 45.9 seconds, set in 1952 by George Rhoden and Herb McKenley, with times of 45.5 and 45.6 seconds, respectively. The Age noted in 2006 that “Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have broken an Olympic track record. Unfortunately he was the fourth man to do so in the same race” but the official Olympic report notes that Davis had already equalled the Rhoden/McKenley Olympic record in the quarter-finals and surpassed it with a time of 45.5 seconds in the semi-finals.
At the 1962 Asian Games, held in Jakarta, Singh won gold in the 400m and in the 4 x 400m relay. He attended the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where he was entered to compete in the 400m, the 4 x 100m relay and the 4 x 400m relay. He did not take part in either the 400m or the 4 x 100m relay and the Indian team of Milkha Singh, Makhan Singh, Amrit Pal and Ajmer Singh were eliminated when they finished fourth in the heat stages of the 4 x 400m.
There have been claims that Singh won 77 of his 80 races, but these are spurious. The number of races in which he participated is not verified, nor is the number of victories, but he lost a 400m race at the 1964 National Games in Calcutta to Makhan Singh and he did not finish first in any of his four races at the 1960 Olympic Games or the aforementioned qualification races at the 1956 Olympics.
Singh’s time in the 1960 Olympics 400m final, which was run on a cinder track, set a national record that stood until 1998 when Paramjit Singh exceeded it on a synthetic track and with fully automatic timing that recorded 45.70 seconds. Although Singh’s Olympic result of 45.6 seconds had been hand-timed, an electronic system at those Games had determined his record to be 45.73.
Milkha 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, from which post he had retired by 1998.
Singh had been awarded the Padma Shri 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 recognise young sports people and not those such as him. He also thought that the Award was being inappropriately given to people who had little notable involvement as active sports people at all. He said that “I have been clubbed with sportspersons who are nowhere near the level that I had achieved” and that the award had become devalued. While sharing his wealth of experience in a college in Goa on 25 August 2014, he also said, “The awards nowadays are distributed like ‘prasad’ in a temple. Why should one be honoured when he or she has not achieved the benchmark for the award? I rejected the Arjuna I was offered after I received the Padma Shri. It was like being offered an SSC certificate after securing a Masters degree.
All of Singh’s medals have been donated to the nation. They were displayed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi but later moved to a sports museum in Patiala, where a pair of running shoes that he wore in Rome are also displayed. In 2012, he donated the Adidas shoes that he had worn in the 1960 400m final to a charity auction organised by actor Rahul Bose.
Media and popular culture
Singh and his daughter, Sonia Sanwalka, co-wrote his autobiography, titled The Race of My Life (2013). The book inspired Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a 2013 biographical film of Singh’s life. The film is directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, and stars Farhan Akhtar in the lead role, and Divya Dutta and Sonam Kapoor in pivotal roles. The film was widely acclaimed in India and won awards including ‘Most Popular Film’ at National Film Awards, and 5 awards at the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards in 2014. The film made over Rs 100 crores. Singh sold the movie rights for one rupee but inserted a clause stating that a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust. The Trust was founded in 2003 with the aim of assisting poor and needy sportspeople.
In September 2017, Singh’s wax statue – created by sculptors of Madame Tussauds in London – was unveiled at Chandigarh. It depicts Singh in running posture during his victorious run at the 1958 Commonwealth Games. The statue is placed at Madame Tussauds museum in New Delhi, India.
As of 2012, Singh lives in Chandigarh. He met Nirmal Kaur, a former captain of the Indian women’s volleyball team in Ceylon in 1955. They married in 1962 and have three daughters and a son, the golfer Jeev Milkha Singh. In 1999, they adopted the seven-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh, who had died in the Battle of Tiger Hill.
Records and honours
|1||Gold||1958 Asian Games||200 M|
|2||Gold||1958 Commonwealth Games||440 Yards|
|3||Gold||1962 Asian Games||400 M|
|4||Gold||1962 Asian Games||4X400 M Relay|
|5||Silver||1964 Calcutta National Games||400 M|