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.

Tributes to the athlete known as the Flying Sikh poured in on social media after the news broke late Friday, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“(W)e have lost 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 wrote.

Singh had first tested positive for the virus on May 20. His wife Nirmal Kaur also died of the virus earlier this week.

Singh was born in 1929 in Govindpura, in what is now Pakistan. He lost his family during the tumultuous partition of British-ruled India at independence in 1947, when it was divided into Pakistan and India, before going on to become one of the young country’s first athletic heroes.

Singh won gold medals at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. He was the Commonwealth Games champion in 1958.

However, he shot to fame at the 1960 Olympics in Rome when he finished fourth in the 400m after a photo-finish was required to decide the bronze medallist. His time of 45.73 seconds was an Indian national record which stood for almost 40 years.

His rise to elite athlete made Singh a national hero and inspired a Bollywood film in 2013 Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. “We all grew up with the folklore of Milkha, he’s a larger-than-life figure for us,” said the film’s director Rakeysh Mehra in 2013. “He’s like what Pele meant to football, or what Jesse Owens meant for track and field for the West.”

Mehra was drawn to Singh’s story not just for his sporting achievements but for the impact the athlete had on a newborn nation struggling to assert itself, describing him as one of the country’s first heroes outside politics.

“This man never ran away from his fears, he ran along with them,” he said at the time.

(With AFP inputs)

Tributes poured in on social media in the early hours of Saturday from the Indian sporting fraternity: