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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Balbir Singh: Not a household name, yet one of the greatest Olympians

A goal-scoring machine from the days when hockey was played on grass, Balbir Singh Sr won three Olympic golds — 1948, 1952 and 1956 — and was India’s most-decorated athlete ever.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi | Updated: May 28, 2020 9:06:08 am
Not a household name, yet one of the greatest Olympians Balbir Singh Senior with his medals at home. (Express file photo)

Whenever he was asked to narrate his journey to greatness, Balbir Singh Senior could never find the right words. “It can’t be explained,” he often repeated. “It can only be experienced.”

A goal-scoring machine from the days when hockey was played on grass, Balbir won three Olympic golds — 1948, 1952 and 1956 — and was India’s most-decorated athlete ever.

He passed away in Mohali Monday after a lengthy stay in hospital. He was 96.

Read | Lionheart, father figure and good Samaritan

A globally-recognised figure, whose contribution was acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2012, the soft-spoken, modest-to-a-fault legend was named among the world’s 16 greatest icons, across all sports, who took the Olympic movement to lofty heights in the last 100 years.

Son of a freedom fighter, Balbir had a difficult initiation into hockey. He grew up in Moga, detesting the police who had jailed his father multiple times. The same police force, as fate would have it, would shape his hockey career.

The story goes that in 1945, the then Punjab Inspector General of Police, John Bennettt, was so mesmerised by Balbir’s play that he commanded his officers to recruit him. To avoid them, the young hockey player fled to Delhi and instead joined the Central Public Works Department team.

Days later, Balbir was handcuffed and brought back to Jalandhar, where Bennett presented him with two options: be jailed or play hockey.

Not a household name, yet one of the greatest Olympians Balbir Singh Senior (1924-2020)

It was easy to understand why Bennett was desperate to sign up Balbir. He wasn’t a great dribbler, at least not in the same league as Dhyan Chand, but he had other qualities. He was a team player, had a natural tendency to pass the ball around and score goals.

The following year, in 1946, Balbir led Punjab to their first national championship title in 14 years, forging a formidable partnership with inside-right Maqbool Hashmat. Then, months before Partition, Balbir combined with his other two close friends, Ali Shah Dara (a gold medallist at the 1936 Olympics) and Muhammad Shah Rukh to help Punjab defend their title in Bombay.

By the time they returned home, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. Riots were on, homes were burning and Balbir, being a policeman, was on the streets, controlling violence. Dara and Shah Rukh had moved to Pakistan.

Balbir, Dara and Shah Rukh met at the London Olympics, representing different countries. Even without his usual allies, Balbir remained unstoppable.

One can see it in the rare, grainy footage on the Olympic Channel: Balbir galloping on a wet Wembley pitch, braving the light drizzle, during the gold medal match against – to use Balbir’s words – ‘India’s old masters’ Great Britain, three days before India’s first Independence Day.

It was a match steeped in symbolism and the big-game player that he was, Balbir scored the first two goals in India’s 4-0 win against a defensive British team. For a just-born nation, still reeling in the aftermath of the Partition, the gold was a healer and source of pride.

As a child, Balbir couldn’t quite understand his father’s obsession with the country and national flag. “(That day) I realised it’s really important. National anthem, sounding sweet, national flag gradually going up. I was also feeling I was going up,” he once said.

Balbir would experience that feeling twice again: at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he scored five of India’s six goals in the final against the Netherlands (a record that still stands), and again at Melbourne 1956, when he was the captain of the side that defeated Pakistan 1-0 to win the gold.

Even after his playing days were over, Balbir wouldn’t stop. He became the coach-cum-manager-cum-camp director of the national team, as he lent his Midas touch once again in 1975 when India won the World Cup – the country’s only one so far.

All his life, Balbir remained a ‘secular nationalist’. Not for him the favouritism or regionalism that would go on to become the biggest bane of Indian hockey. He initiated the idea of a common prayer room, where players from all religions prayed together. He did away with the pre-match war cry of ‘Jo bole so nihaal’ and replaced it with ‘Jo bole so hai, Bharat Mata ki jai’.

On the morning of the World Cup final in 1975, against Pakistan once again, he accompanied his team’s central defender Aslam Sher Khan to Kuala Lumpur’s Royal Mosque to offer prayers. “Behind us was the Pakistani team,” Balbir recalled in an interview. “They said, ‘jo hum maangne gaye thhe, aapne pehle hi maang liya’ (what we wanted to ask for, you have already asked for it).”

It was this good-natured humour, modesty, and ability to take everyone along that made Balbir the glue that held the fractious world of Indian hockey together. He never turned cynical – not even during the darkest hours of Indian hockey. Nor did he ever turn bitter – not even when the Sports Authority of India lost his Melbourne Olympics blazer, 36 medals including the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games silver, and over 100 rare photographs; the memorabilia he had donated for a museum that was never set up.

He may not be a household name like Dhyan Chand or others from that era, but Balbir will remain the ultimate grand old man of Indian hockey, both in terms of stature and the warmth he effused. And perhaps this is why he always appeared a little perplexed when asked to talk about his journey to greatness. It was never a simple one for him to explain. It had, like he often repeated, to be experienced.

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