Millennium Post
Sports

BALBIR SINGH SENIOR: THe GENTLEMAN PLAYER

Balbir Singh Senior epitomises the ideals of a true sportsperson – combining relentless hard work, dedication, confidence and unwavering subservience to the national flag

A three-time Olympic gold medalist – Balbir Singh Senior's record of scoring five out of six goals against Holland in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics remains unbeaten. A striker, a captain, a coach cum manager, above all a secular and patriot, Balbir Singh Senior's contribution to Indian sports remains unparalleled and his story, an inspiration. As he conquered world hockey with his stick, it was not the lure of money or personal recognition, but the recognition for 'his country, his tiranga' that inspired him to put his best foot forward.

Balbir Singh Sr, scored two out of the four winning goals in the 1948 London Olympics, helping Independent India defeat the British in their own backyard. The Indian tricolour fluttered on British soil on August 12, 1948, marking a most important day in the sporting history of independent India. BBC described independent India's first Olympic Gold as the "Most significant moment of Olympic History".

Recollecting the thrill of winning India's first gold in its debut as a sovereign nation in Olympics, three days short of its first Independence Day, Balbir Singh Senior says, "That was the first occasion when India's national flag stood high at the top of the world. We were not awed playing against our former rulers. In fact, this gave us the courage and power to play well. It was raining in England. The ground was slippery and controlling our movements was difficult."

For a team born from the womb of a divided India, this victory was very special. Several players had migrated to Pakistan. "Everything looked victorious. Even Britishers welcomed us to their homes. The civilian Britishers were different from the rulers," reminisces this grand old man of hockey. Racing across decades, he recollects, "I felt I was flying higher and higher with the flag. Only when the national anthem ended did I realise I was on the ground."

Singh captained the 1956 Melbourne Olympics hockey team and was the flagbearer for the next two consecutive Olympics. During the 2012 London Olympics, he was chosen as one of the 16 'Iconic Olympians' across all participants in all disciplines since the start of the modern Olympic Era in 1896 (a period of 116 years), by the custodians of Olympic History. He is the only sportsman from hockey and the only Asian to be honoured in this manner.

Singh has been India's best-ever centre-forward and the first recipient of the Padma Shri for Sports in 1957 and he holds the Olympic and World record for the most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic Men's Hockey Final (1952 Helsinki Olympics).

Yet the man credited with triple victories – 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympics, had to fight for his rightful place in the national team. Spotted and trained by S Harbail Singh of Khalsa College, Amritsar, Singh played exceptionally in the Nationals in 1946 and 1947. He was omitted from the Olympics training camp held in Bombay. On the insistence of an Anglo Indian player, Dickie Carr, he was recalled after the tournament had started.

During the initial matches of the London Olympics, Singh was on the bench multiple times. Once when he was about to bully-off, his captain pulled him out without reason. He got a chance to make his Olympic debut in India's second match, against Argentina. Singh believed his stick should do the talking and went on to score six out of the nine goals. When he was rested in the subsequent matches, his fans sought the Indian High Commissioner V K Krishna Menon's intervention. Singh played in the finals against Britain and scripted history.

Some of his team's victories as chief coach and manager include – Gold in the 1961 Ahmedabad International, Gold in the 1975 World Cup (Kuala Lumpur), Silver in the 1970 and 1982 Asian Games (Bangkok and New Delhi), Silver in the 1982 Esanda Cup (Melbourne), Bronze in the 1971 World Cup (Barcelona) and 1982 Champion's Trophy (Amsterdam).

Behind Singh's enviable career are numerous sacrifices. "What mattered to him was his game, his country and his flag," says his daughter Sushbir Bhomia, born in 1948, when he was in London. When Singh was coaching the team bound for the 1975 hockey World Cup, his father died during the camp. His wife, Sushil, underwent a brain haemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Singh, took a few hours off to conduct the last rituals of his father and would regularly visit his ailing wife after the boys at the training camp went to sleep. He firmly believes that sports can be used as a platform to unite – his players played and prayed together. Singh coined a slogan "Jo bole, so hai. Bharat Mata ki Jai" (pray according to your religion but the victory should be for the country).

Hockey, he says, had dipped in India for some time but has now started coming up. "We have won the Junior World Cup Hockey." As a supporter of employing an Indian coach for the team, he says, our coaches can be sent abroad to train. "For foreign coaches, it is a new assignment but for our coach, it is the question of prestige, our country, our game and our flag."

As a small boy in Moga (Punjab), Singh would watch children play hockey. He now loves spending time with them, answering their questions, in the hope that they will be inspired to win more medals for the country and more players will emerge who will touch greater heights. He tries to inflict his mantra, "Aim high, work hard, think positive, the spot at the top is always vacant."

Singh has two dreams before he bids adieu. First, India wins another Olympic Gold. Second, he sees the game regain its popularity. He donated Rs 30 lakh received from the Major Dhyan Chand 'Lifetime Achievement Award' to the Balbir Singh Sr. Hockey Foundation for the welfare of hockey.

When then Punjab Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon wanted to set up the Punjab Sports Department in 1961, he invited Singh to do the job. Singh was a DSP with Punjab Police and his name was cleared for the SP's rank. The Police were reluctant to relieve Singh since he had been instrumental in winning most tournaments as a player, captain, coach and manager. To dissuade him from leaving the Police, the Police Chief went to the extent of warning him that if he went, his service from 1945-61 would not be counted. Singh ignored the warning since with the Punjab Government he saw the goal of promoting all sports in the state. He retired as Director of Sports, Punjab, in 1982, but several projects initiated by him are still ongoing. Some of these include Women Empowerment (Punjab State Games for women started in 1975), quota system on sports basis in educational institutions and jobs, pension schemes for veteran players, point system for awards and rewards, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Trophy for Excellence in Sports, rural sports and talent hunt.

During the 1962 Indo-China war, Singh offered his three Olympic gold medals to Kairon to auction them and raise money towards the National War Fund, since he had no savings with four children to support. Kairon returned them as they were his family's legacy and the nation's heritage.

In 1985, Singh donated his lifetime memorabilia – 36 medals, 120 rare photographs and the blazer he wore as the Captain and flagbearer in the Melbourne Olympics to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), on their request, for display purposes in their sports museum to be used as an inspiration for the younger generation. When the family approached SAI for the blazer to be displayed in the London Olympic exhibition in 2012, the items were untraceable. His family is running from pillar to post to solve the mystery of the disappearance of this priceless memorabilia. He is only left with the Padma Shri and three Olympic gold medals.

"My dad does not want an FIR lodged against SAI as such news would travel everywhere," says Sushbir, further adding, rather he says, "It would be an act of disgrace to our nation that such a thing happened to a sportsperson like me!"

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