Legendary Indian
sprinter Milkha Singh died on Friday from COVID-19 related causes. The ’91—year-old tested positive for the virus on May 20 and was admitted to the Fortis Hospital in Punjab’s Mohali as a precautionary
measure later that week.

Singh was
among the finest athletes to have ever represented India, scripting his legacy
one historic gold medal at a time. The tale of his rise from a displaced, orphaned
kid who nearly turned to a life of crime, to becoming the ‘Flying Sikh’ – one of
the most decorated athletes in the history of the country – is one of the most
inspirational to come from the annals of Indian sports.

Born on November 20, 1932 in the
village of Govindpura near the city of Muzaffargarh in Pakistan’s Punjab
province, Milkha’s childhood took a traumatic turn when members of his family were
killed in the violence that ensued after the Partition of India.

Singh, who had
to witness a number of those killings, fled from the newly-formed Pakistan in a
train bound for Delhi. Singh had a tough life in the Indian capital, where he
stayed with the family of his married sister, and turned to committing petty crimes.

This led to
a brief stint at Delhi’s Tihar Jail, following which, he decided to join the
Army, where he discovered his penchant for athletics. Back in his village, Singh
had to walk 10 kilometres barefoot to get to his school every day. Perhaps, in
the Army, he only realised and harnessed a dormant potential.

Singh showed
promise as a runner and was selected for special athletics training after a
sixth-place finish in a cross-country run for new recruits, 400 of which had
participated. He soon found himself competing in the 200m and 400m heats at the
Melbourne Olympics in 1956, but failed to qualify for the final race.

However, a
meeting with the eventual winner of the 400m event, Charles Jenkins, turned out
be as life-changing. The American athlete gave useful insights on his training and
the meeting inspired Singh to greater things.

Singh set new records at the 1958 National Games of India in Cuttack in the
200m and the 400m events, and went on to win gold medals in the same categories
at the Tokyo Asian Games the same year.

A month later,
Singh clinched gold in the 400m event at the Cardiff Commonwealth Games, becoming
the first Indian to win gold in an individual athletics event at the Games.

Having narrowly
missed out on a podium finish at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Singh recalls having
made fatal errors in judgement while leading in the race, as among the worst
memories that continued to haunt him long after.

Despite finishing
in under pre-Games Olympic record time, Singh finished fourth behind American Otis
Davis, German Carl Kaufmann and South Africa’s Malcolm Spence, his main opponent
in Cardiff as well.

newspaper The Age famously noted in 2006, “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.”

Later that
year, Singh initially refused to participate in the 200m event at the International
Athletic competition held in Lahore, Pakistan, having never returned to the
country following the Partition. However, he was convinced by then-Prime
Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

He went on
to beat his main rival, Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq in the race, and in his post-match
comments, President General Ayub Khan bestowed upon him the title of the Flying

that iconic race, Singh went on to add two more Asian Games medals to his
tally, at the 1962 edition in Jakarta in the 400m and 4 x 400m relay events.

Singh has
been honoured with a Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, has co-written
an autobiography ‘The Race of My Life’, the book that inspired the hit, Farhan
Akhtar-starrer, film ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. And after all this, Singh still has
one last ambition, to see an Indian win a track-and-field gold medal at the

greatest desire before I die is to see an Indian win the gold medal that I lost
in the Olympics,” he said in an BBC in 2014.