Balbir Singh Sr on 1948 Olympics hockey gold: I felt as if I was flying

“At the 1948 victory ceremony, as the Tricolour was going up, I felt as if I was going up, too,” Balbir Singh Sr said about India beating Great Britain 4-0 in England a year after gaining independence.

Balbir Singh scored thrice against Great Britain in the final on August 12, 1948.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Fragments of historic achievements meld with a bittersweet taste, like an impromptu playground of memories cleaved together from a salvage yard. For an outsider, it is an intriguing dream landscape, with stories of heroic feats, all brought together under the roof of house No. 1067 at Sector 36 in Chandigarh.

Of the eight gold medals that India has won in field hockey at the Olympics, three are here. This was the residence of Balbir Singh Sr, one of Indian hockey’s greatest players who died of multiple health issues in Chandigarh on May 25 last year. He was 95.

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But just a few months earlier, on a brisk Chandigarh morning, we cosied up to Balbir’s warm memories from the 1948 Olympics. India was a British colony when it won gold at Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936, so the 1948 one was special. “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 had told Sportstar.

“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.

There was a genuine sense of contentment and even self-reflection that came through in our conversation that day. Sushbir, Balbir’s daughter, beamed as she talked about her father. “He woke up today morning and asked for the newspaper, even insisted on wearing the turban himself,” she said.

Balbir Singh with his daughter Sushbir.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

For athletes like Balbir, seekers of sustained excellence, coming to terms with the march of age can be tough. Balbir holds the unique honour of being the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent in two successive Olympics, in 1952 and 1956. “The national anthem and the fact that we beat our former rulers (British) on their home soil to retain the Olympic hockey gold can never be forgotten,” said Balbir with satisfaction.

Balbir hailed the fervour he witnessed at Wembley as playing a massive part in his and his team’s success in the final against Great Britain. “I still remember that before the match started, Wembley Stadium was reverberating with the noise of the English fans. But after half-time, some English fans started rooting for India, saying, ‘Make it half a dozen,’” Balbir recalled.

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India beat Great Britain 4-0 in England a year after gaining independence. Four years later, Balbir scored a record five goals against the Netherlands in the Olympics final at Helsinki.
Balbir’s demise splintered one of Indian hockey’s last links with its pre-Independence glory.

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