Editor's note: This week, reports stated that Akshay Kumar's next film — Gold — would be a biopic on hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr. Singh was a member of three Olympic gold medal winning squads, and still holds the record for scoring the highest number of goals in an Olympics men's final. Before his story comes to the big screen, we take a look at the man behind the legend.
At a glittering function last year, India’s legendary hockey striker, captain and coach of yesteryear, Balbir Singh Sr., 91, was conferred with the Major Dhyan Chand ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’. He was among the first sports persons in India to be conferred with the Padma Shri in 1957, and this latest award, therefore, took a long time coming!
Unaffected by the inattention, though, the legend had revealed that the inspiration to play for the country and win Olympic gold medals had come after watching a newsreel on India’s hockey win at the 1936 Berlin Games. He had said, “I was mesmerised by the magical skills of Dada Dhyan Chand and the way he sold ‘dummies’ to the opposition defenders. Therefore, receiving the Dhyan Chand ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ is all the more an honour. I have idolised Dada all my life!”
Balbir Singh, who was born in the village of Haripur Khalsa, in Jalandhar, on 10 October 1924, now lives in Burnaby, Canada. He had retired from the post of Director of Sports, Punjab, in 1982, after an illustrious playing career and dedicated service in the Punjab Police.
The journey to his ‘life’s calling’, as he later termed it, had begun 85 years ago. His father, Dalip Singh Dosanjh, a freedom fighter had brought for his son a hockey stick as gift for his seventh birthday. The glee with which his son, Balbir had opened the gift wrapping and had run on to the ground nearby to play with his new stick had warmed his heart.
The Dosanhj family then lived in Moga, Punjab, a stone’s throw away from the Dev Samaj High School, where Balbir studied. The school’s hockey ground was in fact their backyard. Young Balbir spent his entire after-school hours playing with his mates here. Looking at him through the window of his tiny dwelling, Dalip Singh would often wonder if his gift had distracted his son from his studies. Little did he know then that his son would one day be a three-time Olympic gold-medalist and a world hockey legend!
Climbing the ladder of fame
It is said that Balbir Singh is a direct descendant of Baba Bidhi Chand, a close aide of Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the Sikh gurus. Therefore, he perhaps had inherited his fighting qualities.
After his matriculation, Dalip Singh had packed Balbir off to Lahore to join the Sikh National College there. He wanted his son to finish his studies and then look for a good, steady job. Harbail Singh, who was then the Khalsa College coach had watched Balbir’s skills and enthusiasm for the game and had wished that he join the college in Amritsar. Dalip Singh, however, would have none of it. Harbail Singh’s requests and persistence paid off only two years later when he agreed to let Balbir join Khalsa College.
Balbir was his coach’s favourite trainee and blue-eyed boy. After the team finished its practice, Harbail Singh would take Balbir aside and ask him to practice his dribbling skills, all alone. He then had to take top-of-the-striking-circle shots into goal for an hour. It wasn’t surprising then that he was picked to play for Punjab University, which went on to win the national varsity championships from 1943 to 1945.
The next step upward for Balbir was getting selected to the rock-solid, ‘undivided’ Punjab state squad. The team consisted of star players from Punjab, Sind, Jammu & Kashmir and Rajasthan. The last national championship final under British rule was played in 1947 at the Bombay Hockey Association grounds in Churchgate, when Punjab-led by AIS. Dara, future Pakistan captain — got the better of a strong Bombay squad by a solitary goal.
The Games and some curious happenings
By 1948, the country had not only gained independence from British rule but had also gone through a bloody, devastating partition. Two Olympic Games had been called off because of World War II. A cash-strapped Britain, all the same, decided to play host to the 1948 Games in London.
When the Indian hockey squad for the London Games was announced, with many of its former stars turning up for Pakistan, it wasn’t a surprise that Balbir Singh had made the cut. He had done enough at the university and state nationals to merit a place in the side.
A greenhorn, as far as international hockey was concerned, Balbir wasn’t an automatic choice in the playing eleven. Gleefully accepting the chance to play against Argentina, when Bombay’s Reggie Rodrigues reported sick, he displayed brilliant stick-work to score six goals, including a hat-trick. Argentina was routed 9-1. Then benched for two matches, he came back into the side against Britain, in the finals, and scored a brace. India thus beat Britain 4-0 to win its fourth consecutive gold.
After his excellent showing against Argentina, Balbir’s name was initially included in the team list announced for both the league matches that followed. Against Austria, the lineup was changed just before the game. When the final league game against Spain came up, Balbir was asked to return to the bench by the captain - supposedly under instructions of the team manager. He was replaced even as he was preparing for the bully off!
A senior member of the team by the time the Helsinki Games (1952) came around, Balbir was made vice-captain in a strong team led by KD Singh ‘Babu’. He scored a hat-trick against Britain in the semifinals and then pumped in five goals in the final as India rode roughshod over a hapless Netherlands. That record of five goals, in a final, still stands.
At Helsinki, Balbir was India’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony. After over a hundred pigeons were released by Finland’s President Paasikivi, one of them chose to ‘dirty’ his left shoe as he proudly led the march past. Embarrassed, he was looking to wipe off the dropping, when an Olympic official patted him and said, “You are going to be champs again. We believe, in Finland, that when a bird ‘dirties’ your left boot, nothing can stop you from succeeding!”
Balbir wore jersey number 13 at Helsinki. When one female fan pointed out to him that the number 13 was thought to be unlucky, he said, “In most Indian languages, the number 13 is pronounced as ‘tera’ — meaning God. I can’t be luckier!” India scored 13 goals in the tournament and won gold, its fifth in a row.
At Melbourne (1956), his final appearance at the Games, Balbir was asked to lead the side. After scoring five goals in the opening game of the tournament against Afghanistan — who were whipped 14-0, he broke a finger and had to sit out till the semifinals. Plastering his broken finger and in extreme pain, he played against Germany in the penultimate round, which India won 1-0. The final against Pakistan was hard fought but India snatched the gold medal through a penalty corner hit by RS Gentle.
Balbir describes a funny incident that took place just before the team left for the final against Pakistan in Melbourne. As players were trooping into the team bus, Ansari — a team official — sneezed. This was a bad omen, as far as Ashwini Kumar, team manager was concerned. He pulled Balbir out of the bus, took him back to his room, made him change, had him relax for five minutes and then got him back into the India colours. It was only after this ritual was completed that the bus was allowed to leave the hotel.
Balbir Singh was now a three-time Olympic gold medalist and helped India win two silvers at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games at Tokyo and Jakarta respectively.
Top of the word as mentor
In 2006, Balbir Singh Sr. was declared the best Sikh hockey player ever. He, at first, refused to receive the award but then grudgingly accepted it saying that it could perhaps inspire youngsters to take up hockey. “When we played, it was never as a Sikh or as a Hindu, Muslim or Christian!” he said.
He was asked to manage the Indian hockey team that participated in the 1975 World Cup. “In our team hotel in Kuala Lumpur,” says Balbir, “We had a prayer room where we had placed a Granth Sahib, a Quran, a Bhagavad Gita and a cross. The entire team prayed together in that room and enjoyed playing as a team.”
On Saturday, 15 March 1975, India was to play archrivals Pakistan in the all-important final. That morning, Aslam Sher Khan, who had helped India beat hosts Malaysia in the semifinals, requested that he be allowed to go to the Mosque for prayers. While returning, Balbir and Sher Khan met the entire Pakistani team on their way to offer prayers. One of them took Sher Khan aside and said, “We have observed that the Indian team prays more than us. I think God will be on your side today!” India beat Pakistan 2-1 to win its only World Cup title till date with Surjit Singh and Ashok Kumar scoring.
Love at first sight
Balbir Singh married the girl he loved on 27 November 1946. Sushil, his wife, came from a wealthy Sandhu family in Model Town, Lahore. He first met her when he was carrying a message from one of his professors to the family. For both of them, it was love at first sight!
They met regularly after the first meeting, and kept in touch on phone and through letters. After Punjab won the national hockey championships in 1946, Balbir gave the winner’s medal for Sushil to keep as souvenir.
Balbir has four children. A daughter, Sushbir, and three sons, Kanwalbir, Karanbir and Gurbir.
Balbir Singh Sr. says that his final desire in life is to see India winning the Olympic gold in hockey. “The top spot is always vacant. It is meant only for the hard working and the brave,” he asserts.
He has another wish. That of finding the medals and blazer he had handed over to the Sports Authority of India for a sports museum planned by them. They have supposedly gone missing!
Here’s hoping that the Indian hockey team fulfills the legend’s final desire and that his priceless belongings are returned to him!
The author is a sportswriter and cartoonist besides being a cricket and mental toughness coach.