India witnessed a dark day on Friday as legendary athlete Milkha Singh passed away on Friday at Chandigarh hospital succumbing to COVID complications. His wife, Nirmal Kaur, too, passed away on Sunday due to the same reasons. He was one of the earliest sportspeople of India in even witnessing two partitions of India.
Born on October 17, 1935, in Govindpuri, which is now in Pakistan, he moved to Delhi in the aftermath of the Partition in 1947 when several members of his family were killed before his eyes. For him to have escaped that, joining the Indian Army and excelling in athletes across the world in just over 13 years is ample evidence of the grit and determination that backed his natural talent as a sprinter.
With his passing away, India has lost another gem in this corona crisis. Having said that, the four-time Asian champion, Milkha Singh, was called the Flying Sikh. But why?
Before getting into why he was called Flying let us get into the journey from just Milkha Singh to 'Flying Sikh Milkha Singh. Dating back to the 1956 Melbourne Games - the first major international competition for Singh. He did not gain any medal or name in the Games but lesson-learning experiences were enough for him to rectify his weaknesses and strengths.
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Then, it was in 1958, he started to rise and it was this time when his life upside down. He had already set national records back in India in the 200m and 400m sprints at the National Games. Further, Singh bagged a gold medal at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and in the same year, he also clinched gold medals in the 200m and 400m Asian Champion during the Asian Games. These achievements were enough for him to be called a national hero!
Now, in 1960 what happened that got him the name of 'Flying Sikh'?
In 1960, the then Pakistan President, Ayub Khan, had invited Indian athletes including Milkha Singh to take part in the 200m event at an International Athletic competition in Lahore, Pakistan. He hadn't been back to Pakistan since fleeing in 1947 and initially refused to go. Milkha Singh was not willing to visit the country as it had left some horrific and terrible memories.
"How can a boy, who has seen his parents murdered before his eyes one night, their throats slashed in front of him, his brothers and sisters hacked to death, ever forget those images?" he says.
Yet, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru insisted Singh go. So, he went as the leader of the Indian contingent. In Lahore, Milkha Singh was to face off against Pakistan's Abdul Khaliq, who was considered to be one of the fastest in the world in the 200m sprint and the main rival.
It was a matter of national pride. Losing to Pakistan was not an option, and there was a lot of pressure. Despite the huge support for Khaliq in the stadium, Singh easily bagged the gold medal while Khaliq settled for the bronze medal. As Gen Ayub Khan, Pakistan's second president awarded the competitors their medals, Singh received the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
"Gen Ayub said to me, 'Milkha, you came to Pakistan and did not run. You actually flew in Pakistan. Pakistan bestows upon you the title of the Flying Sikh.'"