India's 'Flying Sikh', who represented the country at three Olympic Games, has died

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Photo credit: Richard Heathcote - Getty Images
Photo credit: Richard Heathcote - Getty Images

Milkha Singh, ‘the Flying Sikh’ who dominated Indian athletics in the 1950s and 60s, has died at the age of 91.

Singh was one of the most celebrated Indian athletes of his generation. He won back-to-back gold medals in the 400m at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games and came 0.1 second away from a gold medal in the same event at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He also represented India at the 1956 and 1964 Olympics, and won gold in the 440-yard race at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

Singh's family said in a statement that he died late on Friday, June 18 of Covid-19-related complications, the Associated Press reported, having first tested positive on May 20. His wife Nirmal Kaur, former captain of the Indian volleyball team, had reportedly passed away a few days earlier on June 13.

Singh’s son, golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, tweeted a tribute to his father on June 21: ‘Dad was much more than my father – he was my best friend, my guide, my mentor,’ he wrote. ‘I hope I've the same resilience & inner strength to overcome all odds.’

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had spoken to Singh shortly before he died, said Singh was ‘a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation’s imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians.’

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‘His inspiring personality endeared himself to millions,’ he added.

Singh was born in a village in what is now Pakistan, before the Partition of British India. After a difficult childhood, he made his way to New Delhi, where his talent for running was spotted by the army.

According to a report in the New York Times, Singh wrote in his autobiography about his dedication to the sport: ‘I renounced all pleasures and distractions, to keep myself fit and healthy, and dedicated my life to the ground where I could practise and run,’ he wrote. ‘Running had thus become my God, my religion and my beloved.’

He is survived by his son Jeeva and three daughters.

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