By Raju Vernekar
New Delhi, June 19:
Legendary sprinter the 91-year-old ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh, who introduced India to ‘track and field’, passed away at PGIMER, Chandigarh, five days after the death of his wife Nirmal Kaur (85), late Friday night. Nirmal Kaur, a former Indian women volleyball team captain, passed away due to COVID-19 on June 13, 2021.
He is survived by three daughters – Mona Singh, Aleeza Grover, and Sonia Sanwalka as well as son Jeev Milkha Singh. Golfer Jeev, a 14-time international winner, is also a Padma Shri awardee like his father and was coordinating with the medical staff at PGIMER along with elder sister Dr. Mona Singh since last month.
The 1958 Commonwealth Games champion and 1960 Rome Olympian, had tested positive for the virus on May 20 and was admitted to a private hospital in Mohali on May 24. He was discharged on May 30 before he was admitted to the COVID ward at the Nehru Hospital Extension at PGIMER on June 3 due to dipping oxygen levels. The former Indian athlete had tested negative on Thursday and was shifted to the medical ICU. “He was fine till Thursday evening. However, late in the night, he had a fever and also de-saturation. “Dad just passed away,” his son Jeev Milkha Singh told the “Transcontinental Times”.
Milkha Singh was born in 1929 in Gobindpura – in present-day Pakistan. He moved to Delhi in 1947 during partition before he announced himself on the big stage to earn the name of “The Flying Sikh”. He was orphaned during the partition (1947) and was introduced to the sport while serving in the Indian Army. It was his stint with the Indian Army which helped sharpen his running skills. He first hogged the limelight when he outperformed 394 soldiers in a race and was selected for further grooming and training. That eventually laid the base for him to become a legendary sprinter.
He was the first Indian track and field athlete to win gold in the then British Empire and Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Cardiff in 1958. He remained the only one for more than 50 years before discus thrower Krishna Poonia won gold at the 2010 CWG in Delhi. He had beaten Malcolm Spence of South Africa with a timing of 46.6 seconds in the Scottish city. While he had also won four Asian Games gold medals – 200m and 400m in 1958, and 400m and 4x400m relay in 1962, his most memorable moment came at the 1960 Rome Olympics where he finished fourth in the 400m final in a photo-finish. Singh’s then-national record timing of 45.6 seconds, set in Rome, was broken by Paramjeet Singh in 1998. Milkha was bestowed the Padma Shri in 1959.
In 2019, Singh had celebrated his 90th birthday with family members at his Sector 8 residence in Chandigarh. A biographical film was also made on his life in 2013, ”Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, starring actor Farhan Akhtar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted “ In the passing away of Milkha Singh Ji, we have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation’s imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians. His inspiring personality endeared him to millions. Anguished by his passing away. I had spoken to Shri Milkha Singhji just a few days ago. Little did I know that it would be our last conversation. Several budding athletes will derive strength from his life journey. My condolences to his family and many admirers over the world”.