Milkha Singh's life has ended, but his legacy will live on
"Don't worry, I am in good spirits. I am surprised how could I get this infection? I hope to get over it soon," Singh had said in his final media interaction.
By the time I was born, Milkha Singh's career had long ended. To heck with that, even my parents were not born when the Flying Sikh competed and established himself as one of the fastest sprinters in the world.
Yet, while growing up, I knew who a certain Milkha Singh was and the kind of impact he has had on Indian sports – thanks to the countless stories I heard and read and, of course, those General Knowledge textbooks in schools.
The last time Milkha Singh represented India was way back during the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. It has been close to six decades since, but such has been his stature that even today, even the youngest of children know who Milkha Singh was. It feels weird to even associate the word 'was' with Milkha, but that's how it is going to be from now, right?
A four-time Asian Games gold medallist and a legendary figure in Indian sports, Milkha Singh breathed his last yesterday in a hospital in Chandigarh due to covid-19 related health complications. What makes this news even harder to digest is the fact that he himself had said he will fight back the virus and return as healthy as he ever was in his last interaction with the media.
"Don't worry, I am in good spirits. I am surprised how could I get this infection? I hope to get over it soon," Singh had said to PTI before being hospitalised.
The entire nation believed he would fight back and come up with trumps – he was known for his fighting spirit. Someone who has fought off the worst of situations in his life, how could a virus cause him any harm?
Born in Pakistan, which was then a part of India, Milkha Singh migrated to India during the brutal partition between the two nations, wherein he lost his parents. A young Milkha even stayed in a refugee camp in Delhi for quite some time before moving out of it in search of a better life.
There was a point in his life when he even considered becoming a thief, but life had other ideas. He was selected into the Indian Army, excelled, fell in love with athletics there and went on to become the greatest Indian athlete of all time.
From failing to go past the heats at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to missing out on a podium finish by 0.1 second four years later in Rome, Milkha Singh has time and again proven why he is a fighter. The tale of him returning to Pakistan just before the 1960 Olympics and beating Abdul Khaliq, who was then considered to be one of the best sprinters in the world, in a 200m sprint, is still very much etched in the memories of Indians.
Besides, he is the only Indian to boast of a 400m gold medal in both Asian Games and Commonwealth Games – it's been 63 years since he achieved that!
For someone who has achieved almost everything an athlete can achieve in life, an Olympic medal remained elusive. That 0.1 seconds in Rome proved to be fatal, not only for Milkha but also for India, which continues to wait for its first-ever Olympic medallist in athletics.
Milkha Singh wanted to win an Olympic medal badly for India in athletics. If not him, he wanted someone else to do it. In fact, that was his one final dream.
"I failed to win a medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and it hurts me till today. More than half a century has passed since then, but no Indian has been able to win an Olympic medal in athletics. It is my last wish to see an Olympic medal around an Indian athlete's neck on the podium at the Olympic Games," Milkha had said ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
While the country failed to fulfil this wish in the Rio Games, India surely stands a chance of realising his dream when the country's athletes stride out at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo in just over a month's time.
Even though Milkha Singh would not be witnessing even if any Indian creates history by winning an athletics medal in Tokyo, there sure would not be anyone happier than him.
Milkha Singh's life has ended; he has been cremated with full state honours. But, they say, 'Legends never die,' and I am a staunch believer of this statement.
Many like you and I never saw Milkha Singh run, but we know he was one of the best in the business. And as long as sports fanatics like us live on, we, along with some help from the General Knowledge textbooks, can make sure that the legacy of Milkha Singh, aka Flying Sikh, continues to live on.