“THE FLYING SIKH’
Born in the Indian village of Gobindpura (now in Pakistan), he was one of 15 children born to Sikh farmers Sampuran Singh and Chawali Kaur. It was a remote, poverty-stricken village and life was very hard.
When the partition of India occurred in 1947, amidst the riots and violence, his family was warned, “convert to Islam – or prepare to die.”
They refused to convert, and his father, mother and seven siblings were hacked to death. His father’s dying words were shouted to him – “Run Milkha, Run.” He ran, outpacing those who were after him – and for the first time realised he was fast.
He hid in the jungle with some other boys. Then he managed to furtively board a train which took him over the border into India and on to Delhi. When he arrived, he was arrested for travelling without a train ticket and was put in a detention centre. He managed to track down his married sister, Ishvar, who sold her jewelry to get him out.
There, he lived rough, on the railway station for a month, before briefly living with his sister’s family. He ended up in both Purana Qila and Shahdara refugee camps in Delhi.
He considered turning to crime as the only way out of this abject poverty, but a friend persuaded him to join the Indian Army instead – which he did. It took him four attempts. The only reason they eventually accepted him was that his older brother, Malkhan, was already a serving soldier with an impeccable military record.
He was put on an Electrical Mechanical Engineering course, but all new recruits had to participate in a cross-country run, and he did exceptionally well. It was soon realised that Milkha had exceptional talent and the army encouraged him to take up athletics. “I renounced all pleasures and distractions to keep myself fit and dedicated my life to the ground where I could practice and run…Running had thus become my god, my religion and my beloved.”
He was good enough to be selected for the 400 metres for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 but failed to get past the heats.
But what he took from the Games was a chance meeting with the gold medal winner, the American Charles Jenkins. The latter instructed Singh in top level training techniques and Singh adopted his programme accordingly.
In the Indian Games of 1958, he broke most of the national records.
Then, at the Asian games in Tokyo in the spring of 1958 he won gold medals at both the 200 and 400 metres.
He then represented India at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, held in Cardiff. He won the gold medal in the 440 yards, becoming the first ever Indian to win a gold in the Commonwealth Games. The British public took to him, nicknaming him ‘The Flying Sikh’.
For this achievement the army promoted him from sepoy to Junior Commanding Officer.
Before the 1960 Olympics he was persuaded by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru, to run in an international event in Lahore, Pakistan. He was extremely nervous as he had not crossed the border since Partition.
He won the race. He was presented with a garland and gold medal by the Pakistan president, General Ayub Khan, who said to him, “Milkha, you came to Pakistan and did not run. You actually flew. Pakistan officially awards you the title of the ‘Flying Sikh’.
In 1960 he was first at the AAA Championships at White City, beating the great British hopeful Robbie Brightwell. This made him the favourite in the Rome Olympics.
Just before the Olympics, at a meeting in Paris, he broke the world record, but as it was an unofficial competition, it did not count.
But he got his tactics wrong in the Olympic final (run on a cinder track). He was leading as they entered the home straight but feared he had peaked too early, so he eased back – and was overtaken by three other runners. Milkha finished fourth – something he regretted to his dying day.
Nevertheless, his time of 45.6 seconds was an Indian record. It wasn’t beaten until the year 2000.
In 1962, he married Nirmal Saini, the former captain of the Indian volleyball team, who he had met whilst she was playing a game in Ceylon and he was running in a competition. She was a Hindu but took the Sikh female surname Kaur. They had three daughters, Sonia, Mona and Aleeza, and one son, Jeev.
He took two golds at the 1962 Asian Games held in Jakarta, but soon realised his best days were behind him. He did represent India at the 1964 Olympics but with no success.
Milkha retired from running in 1964. It is claimed he won 77 of his 80 races but this is a spurious claim and is probably Indian propaganda.
He was then made Punjab’s deputy director of sport – a job he held for many years. He was responsible for developing training programmes for young people in many sports, but particularly athletics.
He retired from this job in 1998.
In 1999 Milkha and Nirmal adopted another son, Gurbinder, whose father had been killed in fighting between India and Pakistan – at the Battle of Tiger Hill.
His natural son Jeev Milkha Singh became a professional golfer. He was the first Indian to play on the European tour.
Milkha wrote his autobiography, co-authored by his daughter Sonia Sanwalka. He sold the film rights for 1 rupee – on the condition a percentage of film profits went to his charity – the ‘Milkha Singh Charitable Trust’. This gave children from backgrounds of poverty the opportunity to take up sport. His aim was to, “inspire the next generation.”
And in 2013, a film was made about his life story. It was called ‘Bhaag Milkha, Bhaag’, which translates as ‘Run Milkha, Run’.
He gave full credit to the army for his athletics career – “I came from a remote village. I didn’t know what running was.” But despite being a national hero, he always turned down honours, claiming the Indian state gave them too freely to people who hadn’t earned them – and were often a reward for corruption.
In 2017, Madame Tussauds of London donated a wax statue of him to India.
Reflecting over his career in a recent interview, Milkha said, “We had nothing in our times. The athletes and sportsmen in those days didn’t earn much money. We worked for the applause, people’s appreciation which inspired and motivated us. We ran for our country.”
In 2021, both Nirmal and Mikha were admitted to hospital on the same day with Covid. She died five days before he did.
On his funeral pyre, he had a photograph of Nirmal in his hands.
Indian TV said when he died, “He is the only Indian to have beaten an Olympic track record. Unfortunately, he was the fourth man to do so in the same race.”
It also said, “He was the finest athlete India has ever produced. India’s first sporting superstar.”
His children donated all of his medals and his running shoes to the nation.
RIP – Running Into Pakistan (no, sorry. Wrong way round!)