Legendary Indian sprinter Milkha Singh died on 18 June of complications due to coronavirus disease (Covid-19), at the age of 91, after a month-long battle with Covid-19 in Chandigarh. Milkha, famously known by the sobriquet ‘Flying Sikh’, had contracted the viral contagion last month and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a top hospital in Chandigarh due to “dipping levels of oxygen”.
Singh’s condition had turned critical on 18 June evening as he developed complications, including fever and dropping of oxygen saturation level, after a bout with Covid-19.
“Legendary Indian Sprinter Shri Milkha Singh ji was admitted in the ICU of Covid Hospital of PGIMER on 3rd June 2021 and was treated for Covid there till 13th June when after putting up a valiant battle with Covid, Milkha Singh Ji tested negative. However, due to post- Covid complications, he was shifted out of Covid Hospital to medical ICU,” a statement released by the hospital read.
“But despite best of the efforts by the medical team, Milkha Singh ji could not be retrieved from his critical condition and after a brave fight, he left for his heavenly abode at 11.30 PM on 18 June 2021 here at PGIMER,” the statement said.
The 91-year-old had tested negative for the virus on Wednesday and was moved to general ICU in another block of the hospital.
Singh’s death comes almost a week after his wife Nirmal Kaur, former national volleyball captain, died of the disease.
A former army man, Milkha Singh won several laurels for the country in track and field events across the globe. He won four gold medals for India in the Asian Games, winning the 200 m and 400 m races in the 1958 Tokyo Asiad. He followed it up with gold medals in the 400 m and 4×400 m relay races in the 1962 Djakarta Asiad.
The race for which Singh was best remembered is his fourth-place finish in the 400 m final at the 1960 Olympic Games, which he had entered as one of the favourites. Various records were broken in the race, which required a photo-finish and saw American Otis Davis being declared the winner by one-hundredth of a second over German Carl Kaufmann. Singh’s fourth-place time of 45.73 s was the Indian national record for almost 40 years.
From beginnings that saw him orphaned and displaced during the Partition of India, Singh has become a sporting icon in his country. In 2008, journalist Rohit Brijnath described Singh as “the finest athlete India has ever produced”.
Singh was persuaded by Jawaharlal Nehru to set aside his memories of the Partition era to race successfully in 1960 against Abdul Khaliq in Pakistan, where a post-race comment by the then General Ayub Khan led to him acquiring the nickname of “The Flying Sikh”.
Some sources say that he set a world record of 45.8 s in France, shortly before the Rome Olympics in the same year but the official report of the Games lists the record holder as Lou Jones, who ran in 45.2 s at Los Angeles in 1956. At those Olympics, he was involved in a close-run final race in the 400 m competition, where he was placed fourth.
Singh had beaten all the leading contenders other than Otis Davis, and a medal had been anticipated because of his good form. However, he made an error when leading the race at 250 m, slowing down in the belief that his pace could not be sustained and looking round at his fellow competitors.
Singh believes that these errors caused him to lose his medal opportunity and they are his “worst memory”. Davis, Carl Kaufmann and Malcolm Spence all passed him, and a photo-finish resulted. Davis and Kaufman were both timed at a world-record breaking 44.9 s, while Spence and Singh went under the pre-Games Olympic record of 45.9 s, set in 1952 by George Rhoden and Herb McKenley, with times of 45.5 s and 45.6 s, respectively.
The Age noted in 2006 that “Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have broken an Olympic track record. Unfortunately he was the fourth man to do so in the same race”, but the official Olympic report notes that Davis had already equalled the Rhoden/McKenley Olympic record in the quarter-finals and surpassed it with a time of 45.5 s in the semi-finals.