Yet, most Indians know precious little about the man who put India on the athletics map of the world and earned the title of the Flying Sikh. The personal tragedies he overcame and the odds he surmounted to become one of the finest runners in the world make his story hugely compelling.
In an exclusive interview in August 2007 with R Rajesh Kumar, the legendary athlete, whose biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag hit the screens on July 12, 2013, in his still-booming voice recalled the highs and the lows of his glorious career, and touched upon the state of athletics in India.
Tell us about your childhood and early days...
I was born in 1935 in Govindpura village in Muzaffargarh district in West Pakistan in a Rajput Rathore family.
There were 12 of us - brothers and sisters. We remained there till partition, which only four of us survived.
My parents and eight of my brothers and sisters, they were all butchered.
You were forced to flee to India, were you not?
Yes, I had to come down alone.
My brother Makhan Singh came later with his unit as did the other surviving members of my family.
Once here, I spared no attempt in joining the army like Makhan bhaiya and finally in 1951, I made it. It was in the army that my athletics career took off.
Fifteen days after I joined, a cross-country race was organised to select 10 jawans for further athletics training. Havildar Gurdev Singh, who went on to become my coach, helped me prepare for that.
When I began running the race, my stomach started aching and I was forced to stop. Then I resumed and ran another half a mile before stopping again. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start. I ran the race in that fashion and still ended up finishing sixth out of almost 500 jawans!
That night during the roll call, they told us the names of the 10 who had been selected. When my name was read out, all the jawans in my barrack congratulated me. I was thrilled beyond words.
I thought that now that I have been selected, I will receive formal training. After that, I started running cross-country races regularly with Havildar Gurdev Singh.