I had the brief honor of my life to meet Milkha Singh back in 2014 in Chandigarh. There was so much to learn from this revered gentleman that it would fill a volume. Apart from the charming smile and benevolent words, you could make out that he was a devoted husband and a committed father, and it was on the track where he found his meaning and sense of purpose in life.
Before his 91-year-old body lost to COVID-19 on Friday after fighting it for a month, he won the kind of battles that not many would have survived. One of independent India's greatest sporting icons was a grief-stricken man but he refused to let that come in the way of triumphs which were unheard of in his era.
The family suffered qualms of Partition of India, orphaning the little Singh. Being disgruntled with his life, he considered becoming a dacoit but instead was coaxed by a brother to attempt recruitment to Indian Army. It was during his service in the Indian Army that he was introduced to athletics.
Who could have supposed a man like that would get the epithet of 'The Flying Sikh'? But Milkha Singh earned it with a masterclass on how to be bigger and better than one's condition.
It’s no doubt that Milkha Singh had always had a flamboyant career graph, of hurdles and benchmarks, of lowest low and of breaking records. Milkha Singh began his Olympic journey at the 1956 Olympics in Australia, but it was his second appearance at the Games in Rome where the world took note of him and applauded the Indian sprinter. In 1958 he won a gold medal in British Empire and Commonwealth Games, making him the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from Independent India; this feat put Indian Athletics on the world map.
Missing what could have been India’s greatest track and field medal — a bronze at the Rome Olympics in 1960 by 0.1 seconds. Hard to believe but he had slowed down in a colossal error of judgement as he wanted to preserve himself for the final 150m.
His life and career story is incomplete without the 1960 Indo-Pak sport meet where he outran Pakistani Abdul Khaliq before the Rome Olympics. Khaliq was considered the fastest man in Asia at that time, having won the 100m gold in 1958 Asian Games. After winning 400m gold in the same Games, Milkha had also beaten Khaliq in the 200m final. Milkha retired from athletics after the 1964 Olympics, two years after winning the gold in 400m and 4x400m relay events at the Asian Games held at the same place.
Milkha set his career record at 77 wins out of 80 races.
Milkha Singh was India's love affair with the track, the one that this country can never get over.
An Army man, a track legend, and a trailblazer who only demanded brilliance from all those who represented India, we wish that his journey to beyond is filled with nothing but happy memories from track.
The void that you have left us with can never be filled.
Thank you for your service.