India's 'Flying Sikh' star runner Milkha Singh dies aged 91

Commonwealth Games gold medallist had a Bollywood film made to honour his athletics career

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 19, 2013, former Indian athlete Milkha Singh attends the theatrical and music launch of his life story, the Hindi Bollywood film 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra in Mumbai. - 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 on late June 18, 2021. (Photo by - / AFP)

Milkha Singh, one of India’s first sport superstars and top sprinter who overcame a childhood tragedy to become the country's most celebrated athlete, has died aged 91.

Singh's family said he died late Friday of complications from Covid-19 in a hospital in the northern city of Chandigarh.

Singh had first tested positive for the coronavirus on May 20. His wife Nirmal Kaur, a former volleyball captain, had died of the virus just days earlier. She was 85.

“He fought hard but God has his ways,” Singh’s family said in a statement.

Popularly known as “the Flying Sikh,” Singh was the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the 400m in 1958. He narrowly missed out on an Olympic medal, finishing fourth at the 400m final of the 1960 Rome Games.

Singh represented India at the Olympics in 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Milkha Singh, of India, strides effortlessly over the finishing line as he won the 440 yards in 46.5 seconds at the Amateur Athletic Association's championships at White City Stadium, London. Milkha Singh (the Empire Games title-holder) clipped one-tenth of a second off his own UK record and established a new championship 'best'.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the tributes to the athlete and called him 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 said in a tweet.

Singh was born in a small village of undivided India, which is now in Pakistan. He saw his parents and siblings being killed by a mob during the Partition of British India, which left up to one million people dead and led to the creation of two new countries - India and Pakistan.

During the riots, Singh escaped to the jungle and then managed to find a train that brought him to New Delhi, where he later joined the army.

Singh’s exploits on the track made him a national hero. His story of becoming the newly created country’s first athletic champion has been passed on to generations. In 2013, his life was turned into a popular Bollywood film, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (Run Milkha Run).

Singh is survived by a son — golfer Jeev Milkha Singh — and three daughters.