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Milkha Singh, one of India’s first sport superstars and an ace sprinter who overcame a childhood tragedy to become the country’s most celebrated athlete, has died of COVID aged 91.
Singh, a four-time Asian Games gold medallist and dubbed the “Flying Sikh”, passed away at a hospital in the north Indian city of Chandigarh late on Friday.
His wife Nirmal Kaur, a former volleyball captain, had died of the virus just days earlier. She was 85.
“He fought hard but God has his ways,” Singh’s family said in a statement.
“My childhood was spent in Pakistan and my youth in India. Wherever I ran, both India and Pakistan ran with me.”
— Milkha Singh ji
— Kuldip Lal (@diplal) June 19, 2021
Singh was the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the 400m division in 1958. He narrowly missed out on an Olympic medal, finishing fourth at the 400m final of the 1960 Rome Games.
Singh represented India at the Olympics in 1956, 1960 and 1964.
Cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar said Singh’s legacy would live on.
“Rest in Peace our very own ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh ji,” he tweeted. “Your demise has left a deep void in every Indian’s heart today, but you shall keep inspiring several generations to come.”
Indian women’s tennis star Sania Mirza said the “world will miss a legend like you”.
Run, Milkha, Run
His rise to elite athlete made Singh a national hero and inspired a Bollywood film in 2013 called “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (Run, Milkha, Run).
The film’s lead actor Farhan Akhtar, who won top awards for his portrayal of the star athlete, paid tribute to Singh in an emotional message.
“You represented an idea. You represented a dream,” Akhtar wrote on social media. “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.”
— Farhan Akhtar (@FarOutAkhtar) June 19, 2021
The movie’s title refers to the poignant last words spoken to Singh by his father.
As he was dying, he told Singh to flee or he, too, would be killed in the post-partition riots sweeping the subcontinent.
Singh ran for his life and boarded a train with other refugees. More than a million people are believed to have died in the bloody sectarian upheaval.
“We all grew up with the folklore of Milkha, he’s a larger-than-life figure for us,” said the film’s director Rakeysh Mehra in 2013. “He’s like what Pele meant to football, or what Jesse Owens meant for track and field for the West.”
— hardik pandya (@hardikpandya7) June 19, 2021
Had the honour of meeting you and you blessed me so many times .. the kindest and warmest 🤲🏽 RIP Milkha Singh sir .. the world will miss a legend like you .. #MilkhaSingh
— Sania Mirza (@MirzaSania) June 18, 2021