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A bonafide legend of Indian hockey, Balbir Singh Sr is considered one of the best centre-forwards to have ever played the game.

The undisputed lynchpin of the Indian hockey team’s second hat-trick of Olympic golds – in 1948, 1952 and 1956 – his craft brought much joy to the country and helped it carve its own identity in the years following independence.

Born in Punjab to Karam Kaur and Dalip Singh Dosanjh, a freedom fighter, much of Balbir Singh’s early years were spent without his father, who travelled constantly and was frequently jailed.

Hockey mesmerized him from a young age – he was introduced to the game as a five-year-old - and when he watched the Indian hockey team lift a third Olympic gold medal in 1936 as a 12-year-old, Balbir Singh Sr already knew what he would do in life.

He started out as a goalkeeper and then moved to the back four but found his true calling at a local tournament when he played as a striker for the first time.

Studies had never been his forte and when Balbir Singh Sr couldn’t get past his 10th-grade exams, his prowess at hockey is what got him admitted to the Sikh National College in Lahore on a scholarship.

The rival Khalsa College soon spotted his talent and poached him, where he led them to three consecutive championships as captain and was soon playing for the Punjab state team.

The team had gone through a 14-year barren patch in the nationals but Balbir Singh Sr helped them to two consecutive national titles in 1946 and 1947.

His growing stature should have made him an automatic pick for the Indian hockey team for the 1948 Olympics but the authorities ‘forgot’ to include him. Only the intervention of Dickie Carr, a gold medallist with the hockey team in 1932, put him on the journey to London.

The 24-year-old Balbir Singh was again shuffled in and out of the team at the Games, but he responded with eight goals in the two matches he played, including two in the final against Great Britain in a Wembley stadium packed to the rafters.

It was an experience he described as unmatchable. “When I saw the tricolour unfurled at Wembley, I was overcome with joy. It was the greatest pleasure of my life, playing for my flag,” he reminisced in an interview.

Four years later, at the 1952 Helsinki Games, Balbir Singh Sr was the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent and was named vice-captain to KD Babu.

The alien conditions in Finland did not deter the silky forward as he scored nine goals, tormenting Great Britain with a hat-trick in the semis before one going even better in the final.

He scored five goals against the Netherlands and it still stands as the record for most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic men’s hockey final.

By the 1956 Olympics, Balbir Singh Sr had graduated as captain of the Indian hockey team and though he was not the most prolific forward for the team in that edition, he was effective through the campaign.

The Indian hockey team was at its ruthless best, putting 36 goals past Singapore, Afghanistan and USA in the first three games but getting past Germany in the semi-final proved to be tough, as they could only manage one, with Balbir Singh Sr suffering a fracture in his favoured right hand, making him doubtful for the final of the Olympics.

However, the summit clash was against another tough opponent in Pakistan and so the inspirational skipper decided to play through the pain. He helped the Indian hockey team to a close 1-0 win, ensuring a sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

He became the first sportsperson to be awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 1957 and was part of the team that won silver at the 1958 Asian Games, hockey’s inaugural edition at the event.

Balbir Singh retired in 1960 and continued his duties as Assistant Superintendent with the Punjab Police, while also being part of the selection committee of the Indian hockey team.

His love for the game meant that he could not stay away for too long – he soon returned to the field as coach of the national team and helped them cope with the expansion of the game beyond the Olympics.

Balbir Singh Sr was coach of the Indian hockey team that won bronze at the inaugural World Cup in 1971 and then managed them to their only World Cup win to date in 1975.


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