New Delhi: Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, India’s legendary athlete who died of COVID complications at the age of 91, will always be remembered as a gentleman who won the hearts of many people.
Veteran sports journalist Prabhjot Singh who knew Milkha Singh for more than forty years, recalled how Milkha Singh earned in January 1960 in Lahore the title of Flying Sikh from the then President of Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Born in Lyallpur in undivided India and now in Pakistan, Milkha Singh got the title after he defeated Abdul Khaliq, the then top sprinter in Pakistan who was popularly known there as ‘ Ghoda’ (horse) for his speed.
This Chandigarh based journalist says he knew Milkha as a very simple man. Prabhjot says that when he last met Milkha Singh four months back in Chandigarh, he was in high spirits. “ He was always in high spirits. He was a very fit man and had very robust health. He would always sport a maroon turban and was immaculately dressed. He was jogging every day and was addicted to golf. Milkha Singh had no formal education and struggled a lot as he came as a refugee from Pakistan. Initially, he could not speak English but he picked up English and gained fluency in the language.’’
Prabhjot who knew Milkha from his early reporting days, says that Milkha made immense contribution as Additional Director, Youth Services and Sports, Punjab. He began organising two to three week off season training camps in Srinagar every summer for 2000 to 3000 boys and girls in Punjab schools. This gave Punjab many sportspersons.
Milkha Singh has admirers around the world.
Pune based Narinder Singh Bakshi whose father, Honorary Captain Avtar Singh was instrumental in recruiting Milkha Singh as a Sepoy in the Army in 1952 in Srinagar, says, “My father and Milkha Singh’s elder brother, Makhan Singh who was also in the Army, were very good friends. We have family terms and they call me Manga Paaji. I first met him in 1960 in the Vallabh Bhai Patel stadium in Worli in Mumbai where a reception was being hosted for sportspersons. I introduced myself to him and told him that my father remembers him. He was very happy to meet me and expressed desire to meet my father. He was staying then in President Hotel in Cuff Parade. I was barely seven years old but I succeeded in reconnecting my father and Milkha Singh ji. We then joined him at the hotel where Milkha Singh ji hosted us and was very cordial.’’
Bakshi remembers Milkha Singh as very generous. “ Three years back, I happened to meet Mr Milkha Singh at the Delhi golf club when his son Jeev was participating in golf championship. He spotted me and asked if I had eaten something. He then put his ‘Invitee’ identity card around my neck and asked me to go and eat.''
Neeru Bhatia, Sports writer and Deputy Bureau Chief with The Week magazine remembers Milkha Singh as a very warm-hearted gentleman and a typical large-hearted Punjabi. “ I was in awe of him. My biggest impression of him was that he was still the very down to earth Milkha that one had heard of. He was still very humble despite being such a decorated athlete. The hard work and discipline was probably the reason why he was such an exemplary athlete. That continued till the very end. He would jog and play golf regularly. He never hankered for any attention. He worked very hard throughout his life. He never milked his status for money. He was not very happy about the doping issues in athletics. Look at the greatness of his accomplishment. We have never had an Indian track athlete winning an Olympic medal ever.’’
Industrialist Anand Mahindra’s tribute aptly sums up the iconic sprinter’s contribution. He tweeted, “ How can my generation explain what Milkha Singh meant to us? He wasn’t just an athlete. To a society still suffering the insecurities of post-colonialism, he was a sign that we could be the best in the world. Thank you Milkha Singh ji for giving is that confidence.”