A day with the hockey legend Balbir Singh

“At the 1948 victory ceremony, as the Tricolour was going up, I felt as if I was going up, too. I felt as if I was flying,” Balbir Singh said in an interview at his Chandigarh residence in February.

Triple Olympic gold-medallist Balbir Singh with his daughter, Sushbir, at his residence in Chandigarh.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The highway from Delhi to Chandigarh is a trip through history and geography. The fables of Kurukshetra and the bloody past of Panipat are complemented by broad roads, flanked by picturesque greenery.

It was early February and the landscape was softer in the morning in Chandigarh. Everything seemed quieter; the tea stalls were opening for business, while some eateries were catering to locals searching for breakfast to shake off the winter slumber.

As one went from the bustling, seemingly crowded streets of Sector 43 to the sprawling, luxurious roads of Sector 36, there was no sense of history attached until you landed on the doorsteps of house No. 1067.

Of the eight gold medals that India has won in field hockey at the Olympics, three reside here.

“These are all that my father is left with now,” said Sushbir, Balbir Singh Sr’s daughter, referring to his three Olympic gold medals. “Naturally, after losing dad’s lifetime treasure trove at the hands of SAI (Sports Authority of India) and after our long struggle trying to trace them and still not finding any leads, we are more possessive.”

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It was Balbir’s good fortune that the three Olympic medals continued to be in his possession and weren’t lost. The 1985 Padma Shri awardee had donated his captain’s blazer from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, 36 medals including the silver from the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games, and more than 100 rare photographs to the SAI secretary at the time on being told that they would be displayed at the then-proposed National Sports Museum.

“Dad’s three Olympic gold medals are our family’s pride. I hail from a freedom fighter’s family; my grandfather always stressed upon the importance of contributing to the honour of the tiranga (Indian tricolour). The Olympic golds stand as testimony towards the same,” said Sushbir.

According to Balbir’s maternal grandson Kabir, the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Museum wanted the Melbourne Games blazer to be part of the official London Olympics exhibition where Balbir was the only Indian and the only hockey player chosen among 16 icons across all disciplines in 116 years of the modern Olympics era.

“That is when we contacted SAI to get that blazer as Nanaji had nothing with him in London apart from the Olympic medals. But the SAI officials said that they didn’t know about the whereabouts,” Kabir said.

Balbir's 1948 Olympic Diploma is framed and hangs on the wall of his home in Chandigarh. - SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

It was not all patrician airs and drawing-room decorum at Balbir’s house, of course. His 1948 Olympic Diploma was framed and hanging on the wall. An approximately 16x22-inch certificate now awarded to the top eight finishers in all competitions, it was signed by the president of the Games, the IOC president and the chairman of the Organizing Committee. His first trophy as a teenager in school was kept nearby, commemorating the beginning of a storied career.

At 95, Balbir’s mind was still sharp, but his body fell a step behind. For driven, competitive athletes like Balbir, seekers of sustained excellence, coming to terms with the march of age can be tougher than one can imagine.

Balbir holds the unique honour of being the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent in two successive Olympics, in 1952 and 1956. An alumnus of DS School in Moga (Jalandhar district), Khalsa College, Balbir went from giving goalkeepers anxious moments in inter-university and national championships to holding the record for the most individual goals – five, against the Netherlands at Helsinki in 1952 – in an Olympic final.

“I keep staring at the medals for a long time,” said Sushbir. “It’s difficult to explain the feeling in words. Each medal tells so many stories. Each time I end up feeling prouder of his contribution towards the nation and feel blessed for being his daughter.”

Balbir was introspective and unassuming. He was at the heart of one of Indian hockey’s watershed moments, but even on that day, 72 years later, he played down his contribution. In a drawing room, a virtual museum celebrating many a monumental achievement, a 342-page long paperback titled A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi’s New India by Canadian journalist Patrick Blennerhassett stuck up like a sore thumb. The book delved into the mystery of how and why a country “consciously” forgot one of its greatest icons. There was credence to this belief.

Amid the clamour for a Bharat Ratna for former India batsman Sachin Tendulkar, the central government modified the rules to pave way for eligibility of sportspersons for the country’s highest civilian award. “The names of Tendulkar, (Abhinav) Bindra and Dhyan Chand were doing the rounds, but there was not a single mention of my father. He’s a three-time Olympic gold medallist!” said Sushbir.

More than just a symbol

Balbir and hockey aren’t immediately associated with India’s dominant status in sports today. After the division of India in 1947, the subcontinent witnessed arguably the largest mass migration in modern history leading to harrowing consequences. Amid the turmoil after Independence, the focus shifted to the 1948 Olympics. “The national anthem and the fact that we beat our rulers (British) on their home soil to retain the Olympic hockey gold can never be forgotten,” said Balbir.

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India had won three Olympic gold medals in hockey before Balbir’s ascent – at Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936 – but those were as a British colony. Balbir’s 1948 gold, therefore, was much more than just a symbol of sporting success; it meant India had put itself on the world sporting map.

“At the 1948 victory ceremony, as the Tricolour was going up, I felt as if I was going up, too. I felt as if I was flying,” Balbir said in his raspy voice.

Incidentally, Balbir almost didn’t make it to London! When the Indian team was picked for the London Games, his name was left out of the list of probables. It was only after Dickie Carr, an Anglo-Indian who had won gold at the 1932 Olympics, asked why Balbir wasn’t playing that his name was included.

At his home in Chandigarh, Balbir raised his hand gingerly and waved it for the first time that day as he described the moment of euphoria.

Balbir holds the unique honour of being the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent in two successive Olympics, in 1952 and 1956. Here, he is seen leading the contingent at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

 

“As a child, I used to ask my father (Dalip Singh), who was a freedom fighter, what the flag means. That day, when our flag was hoisted (at Wembley Stadium), I realised what independence means. It was the proudest moment for me,” he added.

His voice was almost muted, garbled but warm. There was a pause. He lingered a little longer, perhaps punctuated by memories, perhaps by exasperation at the current state of Indian hockey. “I still remember that before the match started, Wembley Stadium was reverberating with the noise of the English fans,” he said, pausing again to catch his breath. “But after half-time, some English fans started rooting for India, saying ‘make it half a dozen,’” Balbir recalled, his hands trembling and voice shaking.

When the hockey legend was battling for life at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh in early 2019, an old photograph sent to Sushbir reflected the Olympic champion’s selfless love for the country. It was from October 1962, when India was at war with China.

Sharing the anecdote, Sushbir said, “A man called me up and said he had a picture of my father that he would like us to have. He was deputed to then chief minister Partap Singh Kairon’s office in 1962 when my father went to meet the CM. When he met him, he offered his three Olympic gold medals for the China war fund. This left everyone in the office, including the CM, surprised. Kairon refused to accept the medals. But my father said the medals were the best he could offer, and on his insistence, the CM accepted them.

“However, Kairon did not send the medals to the PM’s relief fund and kept it in the office instead. After a couple of months, he returned the medals to my father and told him, ‘These (medals) are the country’s pride and can’t be exchanged for money.’”

Everything’

The camera captured Balbir, frail and slow, with a red turban wrapped tight around his head, as he retired into his room. He had a picture of his late wife up on his bedroom wall; a photograph of India’s 1975 World Cup win found a place as well along with a hockey stick. “It (the stick) has given me everything,” said Balbir with a smile.

Balbir with his many accolades and awards achieved during an illustrious career. - Akhilesh Kumar

 

“His energy and memory are an amazing source for all of us. It is such an honour to be known as his grandson. If he stays fit, I’m taking Nanaji to Tokyo this time,” Kabir said.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have that chance.

Balbir Singh had been in a semicomatose state since May 18 and had developed a blood clot in his brain after first being admitted to Fortis Hospital, Mohali, for bronchial pneumonia with high fever. He died in Chandigarh on Monday after battling multiple health issues. He was 95.

In that interaction with him in February, Balbir didn’t let his age and frailty get in the way of a warm welcome – nor a farewell.

As I left, he said to me with an endearing smile, “Thank you for coming. Come again soon.”

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