Milkha Singh, one of India's greatest ever sportspersons, died of COVID-19 complications in Chandigarh late on Friday night, aged 91.
Known as "The Flying Sikh", he won four Asian Games gold medals but his greatest performance was his fourth-place finish in the 400m final of the 1960 Rome Olympics. Milkha was leading at the 250m mark when he (in)famously slowed down, looked at the pack, was overtaken and beaten to an Olympic medal by 0.1 seconds. In an interview years later, Milkha described that moment as his 'worst memory' after the death of his parents.
He had been admitted to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh earlier this month due to dipping oxygen levels. Milkha's wife Nirmal Kaur, a former India volleyball captain, had died on Sunday, of COVID-19 complications, aged 85.
Milkha had first tested positive for coronavirus on May 19 after a helper at his family's Chandigarh home contracted the virus. However, he was the only one of his family to test positive for COVID-19 at the time. A few days later, Milkha was admitted to the ICU of Mohali's Fortis Hospital, where he was diagnosed with 'COVID pneumonia'. His son Jeev said Milkha's hospitalisation was a precautionary measure, while the hospital said he was 'clinically stable with decreasing Oxygen requirement'. He was discharged from the hospital on May 30, before being readmitted on June 3. While initially his condition had stabilised post admission, it had deteriorated this Thursday when he developed a fever and his oxygen saturation levels dropped.
Milkha was introduced to athletics in the Indian Army, into which he gained entrance in 1951. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Milkha represented India in 200m and 400m, but did not progress past the heats. In 1958, he set records in the 200m and 400m in the National Games of India in Cuttack. He went on to win gold in both those events at that year's Asian Games in Tokyo, as well as gold in the 440 yards (~402m) at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff the same year.
Then came Rome, the high point of his career; Milkha's timing on a cinder track in the Italian capital remained the national record for 38 years till Paramjeet Singh broke it in 1998, running on a synthetic track.
His medal-spree continued. He won gold in the 400m and 4x400m relay at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. He represented India in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where the 4x400m relay team he was part of did not make it out of the heat stages.
The 2013 Indian biographical sports drama film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) was based on Milkha's life, with Farhan Akhtar playing the role of Milkha.
Milkha was awarded the Padma Shri in 1959.