The newspapers called him “The Flying Sikh”. On top of that, the sprinter from India was sporting unusually a beard and a topknot on his head.
Most significantly, Milkha Singh was fast!
It was the finals of the 400-meter race at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the international press gave Singh a chance at being a rare track and field champion from Asia, certainly the first from the newly independent nation, India. As David Maraniss describes in his book Rome 1960, Singh burst out of the blocks in lane 5 in the finals of the 400 meter race in the 1960 Olympics, keeping pace with South African Malcolm Spence in lane 3. Halfway through the race, Singh very much had a chance at gold.
But as they entered the second half of the race, American Otis Davis and German Carl Kaufmann began to emerge from the middle, and surge to the front. They pulled away from Milkha and Spence. At the end, Davis barely edged out Kaufmann. And despite a desperate push, Singh could not wrestle the bronze from Spence.
It was fourth place for Singh, finishing out of the medal, but entering into the consciousness of Indians, a symbol not of failure or misfortune, but of how hard work can take an Indian to world-class levels.
And in the scheme of things, Singh’s life experiences as a child pale in the face of the challenges he faced in Rome. When the British Indian Empire fell, and the state of Pakistan was split off from India, primarily to create separation between Hindu and Muslim populations. The so-called partition, a mass migration of Muslims into Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs into India, was a time of tragedy, when neighbor set upon neighbor, when families were split, and people were murdered depending on what religious beliefs they were believed to hold.
Milkha Singh witnessed this first hand in his home, which was located in the nation that became Pakistan. Driven from his town, his family joined the migration. Inevitably, the family encountered the hatred head on, and Milkha witnessed the deaths of his parents and his siblings. An orphan, separated by surviving family members, Milkha made his way across the border into India.
Soon after the Rome Olympics, when Singh returned to India a star, he was asked by the Indian government to participate in a track competition in Pakistan. And Singh refused. It is the kind of script that could only appear in a movie. And of course, this was the dramatic finish to the 2013 movie, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (“Run Milkha Run”), starring Farhan Akhtar, who does actually look like Milkha Singh in his youth (although far more muscular).
In the end, the prime minister of India appeals to Milka Singh’s responsibility as a soldier of India to defend his country’s honor at this track meet in Pakistan. In reality, very little time has passed since the Partition. Milka Singh did indeed run, as the film would have you believe, from the ghosts of his past, from his Pakistani rival, Abdul Khaliq, and find, perhaps, a peace within himself.
Singh would go on to compete. He appeared in Tokyo at the 1964 Summer Games, running in the 4×400 Relay, but unable to help his team beyond the heats. He was apparently an inspiration to the British champion, Ann Packer, whom he greeted with warm confidence before the 1,500 meter finals, telling her she would win, and she did. More importantly, Singh continues to inspire and make an impact. While he reportedly sold the film rights to his story for one rupee, he stipulated that a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, which assists poor and needy sportspeople.
Here is the final scene from the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in which Singh triumphs in Pakistan.