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The Flying Sikh’s Legacy in Sport and Pop Culture

Remembering Milkha Singh, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91

Rolling Stone India Jun 20, 2021

Milkha Singh in Chandigarh in 2010. Photo: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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Late on Friday evening, India suffered the great loss of its first-ever celebrity athlete – the track champion Milkha Singh, to Covid-19 at 91. The news came after Singh’s month-long struggle and a few days after his wife, Nirmal Kaur, succumbed to the virus. 

India celebrates Milkha Singh as one of the greatest athletes in the country. Surviving the trauma and bloodshed of the Partition, the indomitable young Sikh did not lose hope after tragedy struck. Once a petty thief, Singh was later recruited by the Indian Army — after three tries, the fourth was a charm — where he was introduced to athletics and sprinting. Some might say that he was the personification of the ancient parental guilt trip — he used to cross a real-life 10 km long obstacle course almost like a triathlon with built-in sand patches and canals. Almost as if running was the only thing Singh knew better than anything, he trained for hours on end, always barefoot, during his postings. 

In 1958, Singh grabbed victory in the 400m race at the Asian Games in Tokyo. He was titled ‘best athlete,’ becoming the first Indian athlete to earn gold in any sport at the 1959 Commonwealth Games. He turned into a beacon of possibilities for Indian athletes. In 1960, he broke the record for the fastest 400m race at 45.8 seconds in a preliminary Olympic event, but as luck would have it, he stood at fourth place in the final race. His story only starts there; it would still be told and retold for years to come. 

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Milkha Singh has had an influential effect on the country’s pop culture discourse as well. Some only knew him as the butt of jokes because of his simple background (“Excuse me sir, are you relaxing?” “No, I am Milkha Singh”). In contrast, some recognized his popularity through his 2013 biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Published in 2013 and authored by Singh and his daughter, Sonia Sanwalka, his autobiography titled The Race of my Life was released in 2013. His story contained the right amount of tragedy, drama, thrill, fantasy, and heroism to be picked up by filmmaker Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra who hit the bulls-eye casting Farhan Akhtar as Singh.

Interestingly, “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” were the last words of Singh’s dying father asking him to run away from communal violence at the border in undivided India. Those words are now a resounding reminder of the legacy of the Flying Sikh. The film is one of India’s most critically-acclaimed sports films and was titled a ‘Wholesome Entertainment’ at the National Film Awards. The movie went on to win five other accolades at the International Indian Film Academy Awards. 

Singh’s immense popularity has been etched into the common person’s daily life. For young Indians today, “running like Milkha Singh” is an idiom colloquially added to everyday conversation since time immemorial. 

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Singh’s long-lasting amusement with Madame Tussaud and an ardent wish to have a wax statue of his own was fulfilled in September 2017 when his iconic victorious pose from the 1958 run was recreated and displayed in the wax museum in New Delhi. This was not just a huge milestone for Singh but also his legacy as his wax-double shares stage with Indian revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh and prominent figures of today like legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar.  

During and after the making of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Singh’s contribution to the story made him the favorite uncle of Bollywood. Although Singh admittedly said that he hadn’t watched a single movie since 1968 and has rejected all movie ideas since, his son Jeev Milkha Singh, a professional golfer, convinced him to narrate his story to Mehra. His impact on the Indian Film Industry left everyone in awe.

People across the country and abroad sent condolences on Singh’s passing. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to track runner P.T. Usha to the Bhaag Milkha Bhaag film team, Twitter messages continue to pour in remembering the iconic sportsman. He changed athletics in India forever and brought the country international recognition during its nascent stages. Singh has inspired older Indians, but his legacy stays on for the younger generations through his achievements and impact on the country’s pop culture.  

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