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'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh dies of Covid aged 91

Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh

Milkha Singh, one of India's most successful track athletes who overcame childhood tragedy to seek Olympic glory, has died aged 91 after a long battle with Covid-19, Indian media said Friday. Tributes to the athlete known as the "Flying Sikh" poured in on social media after the news broke late Friday, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying he was "anguished" by the news.

"(W)e have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation's imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians. His inspiring personality endeared himself to millions," Modi wrote. "Dad just passed away," Singh's son Jeev Milkha Singh, himself a leading pro golfer, told the Indian Express newspaper. Singh had first tested positive for the virus on May 20, the Express reported. His wife Nirmal Kaur also died of the virus earlier this week, the newspaper said. Singh was born in 1929 in Govindpura, in what is now Pakistan.

He lost his family during the tumultuous partition of British-ruled India at independence in 1947, when it was divided into Pakistan and India, before going on to become one of the young country's first athletic heroes. Singh won gold medals at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. However, he shot to fame at the 1960 Olympics in Rome when he finished fourth in the 400m after a photo-finish was required to decide the winner. His time of 45.73 seconds was an Indian national record which stood for almost 40 years. But the devastated Singh never fulfilled his dream of winning an Olympic medal. 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 movie 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. Millions are believed to have died in the bloody sectarian upheaval. Singh ran for his life and boarded a train with other refugees. "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." Mehra was drawn to Singh's story not just for his sporting achievements but for the impact the athlete had on a newborn nation struggling to assert itself, describing him as one of the country's first heroes outside politics. "This man never ran away from his fears, he ran along with them," he said at the time. Tributes continued to flow on Indian social media in the early hours of Saturday.

"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," tweeted India tennis star Sania Mirza. "A hero, an inspiration, a legend. His legacy will live on for generations to come. Rest in Peace, Milkha Singh sir," tweeted cricketer Jasprit Bumrah.

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