On May 25, the Nation lost its legendary hockey wizard, S. Balbir Singh Sr. From playing a starring role in 1948 Olympics to getting named among the 16 legends chosen by the International Olympic Committee across modern Olympic history, he was surely the greatest hockey players of all time.
But for S. Balbir Singh the most remarkable and special moment of his life was winning the first Olympic Gold medal for the Independent India and that too against a country which had colonised India for over 190 years. It was the London Olympics of 1948 and the finals was against the hosts, England. Barely a year since the departure of British from Indian Subcontinent- more than sports it was pride which was at stake.
The Wembley stadium was jam-packed and crowds were cheering for the hosts. It was reverberating with the sounds of the English fans, but when later Indians dominated the game, the crowd started rooting for the challengers. It was a proud moment because the team was about to face the country which had ruled India for a long period. A win in the finals would mean witnessing the tricolor of independent India rising high above the Union Jack. India defeated England in their own turf with Balbir Singh scoring two of the four goals that India struck in the finals. To beat the erstwhile colonial power on their home turf was special.
Recalling the moment at the Chandigarh press club, he said “As our national anthem was being played and the tri-colour was going up, I felt that I too was flying with the flag. The sense of patriotism that I felt was beyond any other feeling in the world,”
The only medals he had were his three Olympic Golds, London 1948, Helsinki 1952, Melbourne 1956. His world record for most goals scored by an individual in the men’s hockey final of the Olympics still remains unbeaten. He scored five goals against Netherlands in the finals of 1952 Olympics. He was also the recipient of India’s first Padma Shree awarded in the category of Sports. He even lit the sacred flame at Asian Games, held in 1982. Balbir Singh even coached the 1975 Indian hockey team that won India’s only World Cup Gold. At 93 he was kind hearted and always kept a Hockey stick along his bedside. Hockey was his passion. At 2012 Olympics, Balbir Singh, was honoured as one of the 16 iconic Olympians.
My father who was also a former hockey player recalls the precious moments of his life when the hockey legend taught him few skills while he was training at Jallandhar Sports College.
Hockey was his life and all he wanted was to see India win the Gold once again at the Olympics. Balbir Singh never got the recognition he deserved. In the 1980″s he donated all his medals and the historic Melbourne Blazer to the Sports Authority of India for a museum. But till date no Museum has been built and whereabouts of his medals and Blazer are unknown. In order to provide riot relief to the affected following the 1984 Delhi Sikh Riots, he sold many of his blazers.
Considered the greatest hockey player after Dhyan Chand, S. Balbir Singh was born in Haripur Khalsa, Jalandhar and did his education from Lahore’s Sikh National College. He started his career as Goal-keeper and went on to become country’s greatest Centre Forward. S. Balbir Singh Ji was part of the last team of undivided Punjab which won the title in 1947 National Championship. The recent Movie Gold by Akshay Kumar was based on his life. He was surely one of greatest athletes the country has ever produced. His contribution to the field of Hockey is unmatched. His passing to oblivion has left a void so deep that it can never be fulfilled. The first to hold the national flag at Independent India’s first Olympics and the first to experience the feeling of flying with the flag. He regarded August 12, 1948 as the Greatest Day in India’s Sporting History.
(The author is Scholar of Sikh History. )