Balbir Singh Sr. reminisces of golden hockey days

After receiving the Life Time Achievement award on Saturday night at the RP-SG Indian Sports Honours in Mumbai, the 93-year-old, in an interview, went into a journey down memory-lane, explaining how hockey became his first love.

Balbir Singh Sr., who served the country in three successive Olympics — 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne.   -  Special Arrangement

The quiet determination with which he so gloriously served the country at three successive Olympics — 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne — is very much part of Indian sporting history.

Yet, as one came across Balbir Singh Sr., on Saturday night at the sidelines of the RP-SG Indian Sports Honours in Mumbai, what struck the most was the sprightly manner he conducted himself at the ripe old age of 93 years.

Of course, his grandson, Kabir, remained a close shadow as the great man climbed the few steps to the arena to receive the Life Time Achievement award bestowed on him. But as he started his short acceptance speech, the packed house was sworn into rapt attention, picking every word of the iconic figure as pearls of wisdom.

The Sardar who holds the unique record of scoring the most goals in an Olympic final —  five against Holland in Helsinki — was also quick to accept a request for an exclusive interview with Sportstar. “It is too late now. We will meet tomorrow.”

India’s best ever centre-forward of all time and the first sportsperson to be awarded with the Padma Shri was almost ready at 11 a.m. on Sunday for the interview and before long was well into a journey down memory-lane, explaining how hockey became his first love.

“I will keep this short but you should know that it was destiny which helped me to achieve all I did during my career. I was 12 when I started playing, initially as a goal-keeper. Then I moved into the front as a full-back and when, I was called to play for Friends Club for a tournament, I was made play as a centre-forward for the first time.

“It was also by accident that I made the shift from Lahore to Amritsar. I had failed at the intermediate level but the Khalsa College allowed me to join the degree course which helped me come up to the International arena within a short span of time.

“The other blessing in disguise was the forceful insistence of Punjab Police to join their ranks. My father was a freedom fighter and a teacher and I initially did turn down the offer, moving to New Delhi and joining the Central PWD.

“I starred well for CPWD in a few matches but Punjab Police, keen to have my services, forcefully took me back to Jalandhar, giving me two options — play for them or spend time in jail.

Balbir Singh Sr. after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.   -  Special Arrangement


With his feats in the Olympic arena remaining well-documented, Balbir as the topic changed was firm with his opinion that it was not the advent of astro turf which caused the downfall of the fortunes of Indian hockey.

“After the World Cup triumph in Kuala Lumpur a year earlier, we had approached the Montreal Games quite underprepared. To my mind, the synthetic surface is the best for a game like hockey wherein players get the right opportunity to showcase their skills.

“However, it is sad that poor outing did cast a long shadow on the Indian game. But now that the junior team being able to win the junior World Cup after a long gap, I am sure things will improve in the long run.

“Though official records show October 10, 1924 as my birth date, I was actually born on December 31 of that year. So my wish and prayer is that India will get back to the top of the pedestal once again at the 2024 Games in Paris. I will be 100 then,” the one time chief coach and manager of the Indian team said with a twinkle in his eyes, signing off.