The Flying Sikh Milkha Singh's legacy will live on forever

Milkha Singh arrives for the Gala Screening of Bollywood film 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' in central London on July 5, 2013. (AFP file)
Milkha Singh arrives for the Gala Screening of Bollywood film 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' in central London on July 5, 2013. (AFP file)

New Delhi - PT Usha, Ashwini Nachappa remember Singh's indomitable spirit

By Joydeep Sen Gupta/M Raghuram

Published: Sat 19 Jun 2021, 11:12 PM

Last updated: Sat 19 Jun 2021, 11:27 PM

Milkha Singh, who died in Chandigarh on Friday after a month-long battle with Covid-19, was India's greatest track and field athlete.

He died five days after his wife, Nirmal Kaur, 85, a former India volleyball captain who was bedridden for the past few years, succumbed to the contagion at the same healthcare facility.

Tributes poured in thick and fast, as several former athletes and track and field stars remembered the iconic sportsman.

Anju Bobby George with Milkha Singh in  in Kannur, Kerala. (Supplied photo)
Anju Bobby George with Milkha Singh in in Kannur, Kerala. (Supplied photo)

For a man who had lost his parents in the riots during the 1947 Partition, Singh came tantalisingly close to winning an Olympic medal 13 years later.

Singh was leading the 400m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics until “a momentary lapse of reason and a self-confessed error in judgement” saw him finish fourth.

Despite the Olympic heartbreak in Rome, Milkha’s achievements – four Asian Games gold and a Commonwealth Games gold – were truly remarkable for an Indian athlete.

PT Usha, the queen of Indian track and field who famously won four gold medals at the 1986 Asian Games, said Milkha was one of her biggest inspirations in life.

“I first came to know of Milkha Singhji, when I was only 13 years. I was a budding athlete and my coach OM Nambiar mentioned him to me. Much later, he was one of the selectors who chose me for the World Junior Athletics Championship in Seoul (South Korea). I went on to win a gold in the 200 metres (m) and also secured a bronze in the 100m,” Usha told Khaleej Times.

“I always kept in touch with him. He was always encouraging and kind to me. He was a father figure to me like my coach Nambiar sir. Milkhaji's passing is an end of era in the country’s sporting history.”

Usha then recalled the last time she met her hero.

“I remember meeting him in Chandigarh four years ago. I had visited him at his residence to meet his wife, who was not keeping well for the past few years. That was the last time I had met him, and I remember we had lunch together,” she said.

“Funnily, he never referred to me by my first name Usha. I would always be referred to by my initials PT or beti (daughter). His passing is one of the saddest days of my life.”

And Anju Bobby George, the only Indian to have won a gold medal at the World Athletics Championships, said Singh was a great motivator.

“Milkhaji was a great motivator, not just but his words, but also by his action. I remember he had come from his home in Punjab to my home in Kannur in Kerala just to congratulate me after winning World Championship. He brought his wife also, they were a wonderful couple and both great sportspeople at that,” Anju recalled.

“He was gracious to accept us as family friends and was very vehement about family values. Even today I hear his speeches on YouTube I have recommended hundreds of young athletes to draw inspiration from him.”

Ashwini Nachappa, a former Indian track and field star, says Mikha’s legacy will live on.

“We must celebrate Milkha Singhji's life. Death is inevitable, but in his passing, I see only a biological end to a milestone, as his achievements will continue to live on,” Nachappa told Khaleej Times.

Nachappa, who won a silver medal at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, felt Milkha didn’t get the recognition he deserved.

“None has come across such a hardy Indian athlete, who scaled dizzy heights at a time when Indians got very few opportunities because of lack of science and technology in sports. His childhood was traumatic and later on the sports administrators also treated him shabbily,” she said.

“I still cannot believe he was conferred the Arjuna award as late as 2000, when his larger-than-life presence was there for all of us -- guiding, supporting and mentoring. I still remember his thunderous ‘shabash beta’ (well done, child) accolade when I made it to the top.

“His benign presence inspired and egged us on at training sessions, national and international meets amid the highs and lows of our performances. I’m ever grateful to him for motivating me with his rustic Punjabi Hindi, which inspired me to excel in the international arena.”

In 2013, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, a Bollywood filmmaker, paid a moving tribute to Singh with his biopic -- ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ (Run Milkha Run) – on the legendary athlete.

And actor Farhan Akhtar, who earned widespread plaudits for his portrayal of Milkha Singh in the movie, poured his heart out on Instagram, just hours after the death of the legend.

“You represented an idea. You represented a dream. You represented (to use your own words) how hard work, honesty and determination can lift a person off his knees and get him to touch the sky,” Akhtar wrote on Friday night.

“You have touched all our lives. For those who knew you as a father and a friend, it was a blessing. For those who didn’t, your story was a constant source of inspiration and a reminder of humility in success.

“I love you with all my heart.”

India would forever be in love with The Flying Sikh.

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