- Whenever he was asked to narrate his journey to greatness, Balbir Singh Senior could never find the right words. “It can’t be explained,” he often repeated. “It can only be experienced.”
- A goal-scoring machine from the days when hockey was played on grass, Balbir won three Olympic golds — 1948, 1952 and 1956 — and was India’s most-decorated athlete ever.
- He passed away in Mohali Monday after a lengthy stay in hospital. He was 96
- A globally-recognised figure, whose contribution was acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2012, the soft-spoken, modest-to-a-fault legend was named among the world’s 16 greatest icons, across all sports, who took the Olympic movement to lofty heights in the last 100 years.
- Son of a freedom fighter, Balbir had a difficult initiation into hockey. He grew up in Moga, detesting the police who had jailed his father multiple times. The same police force, as fate would have it, would shape his hockey career.
- The story goes that in 1945, the then Punjab Inspector General of Police, John Bennettt, was so mesmerised by Balbir’s play that he commanded his officers to recruit him. To avoid them, the young hockey player fled to Delhi and instead joined the Central Public Works Department team.
- Days later, Balbir was handcuffed and brought back to Jalandhar, where Bennett presented him with two options: be jailed or play hockey.
- The following year, in 1946, Balbir led Punjab to their first national championship title in 14 years, forging a formidable partnership with inside-right Maqbool Hashmat.
- Then, months before Partition, Balbir combined with his other two close friends, Ali Shah Dara (a gold medallist at the 1936 Olympics) and Muhammad Shah Rukh to help Punjab defend their title in Bombay.
- By the time they returned home, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. Riots were on, homes were burning and Balbir, being a policeman, was on the streets, controlling violence. Dara and Shah Rukh had moved to Pakistan.
- Balbir, Dara and Shah Rukh met at the London Olympics, representing different countries. Even without his usual allies, Balbir remained unstoppable.
- As a child, Balbir couldn’t quite understand his father’s obsession with the country and national flag. “(That day) I realised it’s really important. National anthem, sounding sweet, national flag gradually going up. I was also feeling I was going up,” he once said.
- Balbir would experience that feeling twice again: at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he scored five of India’s six goals in the final against the Netherlands (a record that still stands), and again at Melbourne 1956, when he was the captain of the side that defeated Pakistan 1-0
- Even after his playing days were over, Balbir wouldn’t stop. He became the coach-cum-managercum-camp director of the national team, as he lent his Midas touch once again in 1975 when India won the World Cup – the country’s only one so far.
- All his life, Balbir remained a ‘secular nationalist’. Not for him the favouritism or regionalism that would go on to become the biggest bane of Indian hockey. He initiated the idea of a common prayer room, where players from all religions prayed together.
- He may not be a household name like Dhyan Chand or others from that era, but Balbir will remain the ultimate grand old man of Indian hockey, both in terms of stature and the warmth he effused.
- In 1957 Singh became the first recipient of the Padma Shri award in the sports category.