India’s Last Great Olympic Hero Lives Quietly In Metro Vancouver
March 7th, 2016
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Towards the end of the illustrious career of Dhyan Chand, considered as one of the greatest field hockey players of all time, another legend-in-the-making was at the dawn of his career. Balbir Singh, one of India’s most celebrated hockey players, currently lives a life of retirement and anonymity in Vancouver, Canada.
Part of team which won Three Gold Medals
Balbir Singh, also called Balbir Singh Senior, was part of the three teams that secured gold medals in the Olympics held in 1948, 1952 and 1956. The three time gold medallist was the Indian team’s Vice Captain in the Helsinki Olympics(1952) and Captain in the Melbourne Olympics(1956). He holds the record for scoring the highest number of goals in a men’s hockey final owing to his stellar performance in India’s 6-1 victory over Netherlands in the 1952 Olympics. He was also part of the silver medal winning team in the Asian Games of 1958.
The Desire To Be A Police Officer
Balbir’s passion for hockey started thriving from his childhood days and was further driven by India’s inspiring win in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He played for the Khalsa College team and was tutored by Coach Harbail Singh. Sir John Bennet, the Inspector General of Punjab took notice of this young talent at a College level match in 1945. Bennet insisted on Balbir becoming a part of the police force’s hockey team. But Balbir was not too keen on joining the police force as his father, who had been a freedom fighter, had been tortured and unfairly sentenced by the same police. Balbir tried to flee to Delhi but was caught and given a choice between joining the police force and playing for its team or rotting on the wrong side of the law.
The Unstoppable Force
Once Balbir started his official field hockey career with the police team, he was an unstoppable force that was reaching for greater heights. Bennet probably repented his out-of-the-way encouragement to Balbir when the Indian team won the 1948 London Olympics by defeating Britain in the finals. About this historic win which gave India a huge psychological push after its recently acquired independence, Balbir says “My teammates and I were thrilled to win sovereign India’s first Olympic Gold. And I was pleased to score the first two goals in our 4-0 victory in the final match at Wembley Stadium against our former rulers.”
For a nation that had just begun its recovery process from the violence and distress that had wrecked the country during the British rule, a win of such a magnitude at such a high level was inspiring and also instrumental in establishing the ‘nothing is impossible’ belief. Balbir recalls, “The bloodshed during partition was tragic. A thought of that burns my blood even now. There was so much blood on the trains, the buses, and on the roads. It was so tragic.”
Dropped From The Indian Team
Balbir Singh was dropped in 1960 for ambiguous reasons. Blennerhassett, in his new book, “A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi’s New India”, has tried to explore several rumours and conspiracies that point towards communal politics being the reason for Balbir Singh’s exclusion. But Balbir Singh has not commented on that part of his career and abstains from dwelling over the political agendas behind his expulsion.
Singh was the manager and Chief Coach of the Indian team for the 1975 Men’s Hockey World Cup which India went on to win. Also Balbir was the first hockey player to be awarded the Padma Shri. He was honoured in the Olympic Museum Exhibition during the London Olympics in 2012 for his extraordinary career in hockey.
Even today at the age of 91, his days are filled with activity and fitness regimes that include long walks and yoga. The Logical Indian remembers and celebrates the victories that were brought home during the recuperation period for India. Balbir Singh’s contribution to the sport of field hockey and to the country can never be forgotten!