Balbir Singh, one of the greatest centre forwards ever, has left behind a treasure trove of memories — fondly taken care of by his grandson Kabir Singh and daughter Sushbir Kaur, who he used to live with at their Chandigarh home. The duo formed two pillars who supported Balbir Singh in the strongest possible manner.
The shine of that 1948 Olympic gold won’t be the same as ever, with it’s proud owner not there anymore to wear it. But it will be a rich tribute to talk about those seventy minutes on August 12, 1948, after which India’s tricolour was hoisted at an Olympic medal ceremony for the first time.
Here’s an account of that momentous day, including anecdotes by the legend himself.
India was just three days away from celebrating a very special Independence Day. Around 7,000 km away, in London, 11 Indian men were fighting a different war against their former rulers – the British. The venue was the Wembley Stadium, packed to capacity. The occasion was the Olympics final in men’s hockey. The irony was unmistakable. The British, before this, had refused to play a team from India since it was one of their colonies. On that day though, they had no choice. India was a free country, and the Indian players played like free men, thrashing Great Britain 4-0. India won their fourth consecutive Olympic gold, and the tricolour of an independent India made its maiden journey to the top of the pole at the Olympics. History was made.
Sub-inspector Balbir Singh made his Olympics debut in 1948, and by the end of the Games, he was a hero. The centre-forward scored two goals in the final, while Tarlochan Singh and Pat Jansen scored the other two.
“It happened 70 years ago, but it feels like only yesterday,” Balbir Singh had said in 2018, as he reminisced the moment while talking to Timesofindia.com.
“The Tiranga rose up slowly. With our National Anthem being played, my freedom-fighter father’s words ‘Our Flag, Our Country’ came flooding back. I finally understood what he meant. I felt I was rising off the ground alongside the fluttering Tiranga,” he added.
The legend of Balbir Singh Sr
Balbir Singh went on to win two more Olympic gold medals – one in 1952 and as captain in 1956, but the top prize in the 1948 Games remained the most cherished accomplishment for him. For a man who was once handcuffed by the Britishers to be inducted into the police force and play for Punjab, it was payback. Incidentally, the same British officer who ordered that arrest, Sir John Bennett, came to welcome the Indian team when it landed in London for the Games and hugged Balbir.
India’s 1948 gold medal was hailed by the entire nation. It was a special moment for independent India.
The country had paid a heavy price for its freedom from the British Raj. India was partitioned for the creation of Pakistan. In one of the largest movements of population in history, millions lost their lives, families and friendships were ravaged and loved ones were lost or left behind as dead bodies.
After a catastrophe of that magnitude, hockey provided the country a sense of sweet revenge. Great Britain, who incidentally had beaten Pakistan in the semi-finals, had to once again kneel down in front of Indian resolve.
Balbir Singh Sr, in his autobiography ‘The Golden Hat-Trick – My Hockey Days’, describes the moment when the umpire blew the full-time whistle at Wembley signalling India’s win.
“After the victory, VK Krisha Menon, free India’s first High Commissioner in London, who witnessed the match, came running to congratulate us,” he wrote.
The scenes that followed upon the team’s return home were soul-stirring.
“Bombay literally rolled out its biggest red carpet. It was natural, since the maximum number of players in the team were from that city,” Balbir Singh mentioned in the book.
“We were swept off our feet and it was here that I realised what the victory meant to our nation, starved as it was of world class accomplishments. Hockey was the only sport that gave the country a ray of golden hope, something to cheer for and celebrate.
“In Delhi, President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to see a match that had been arranged at the National Stadium…The press claimed that 70,000 people watched the match that day…The enthusiastic spectators hoisted us on their shoulders, patted us and touched us, as if they were paying a tribute to heroes returning home from a fierce battle.”
TOISA 2019: Balbir Singh Sr named Icon of the Century
Interestingly, Balbir Singh was not selected in the 39 probables for the 1948 Olympics, only to be telegrammed later to join the national camp after the chorus of voices asking for his inclusion grew louder. Two days into the camp, he broke a rib and was hospitalised. However, he recovered soon and was named in the 20-member Olympic squad.
At the Games in London, Balbir was pulled out of the eleven at the last minute in the quarter-final against Spain and the semifinal against Holland. That despite scoring six goals in the match against Argentina on his Olympic debut. The touring selection committee seemingly had some reservations about Balbir. But after another public outcry, he was included for the final. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In Pics: Glorious journey of hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr
When Balbir Singh gave independent India its first Olympic gold medal
Twin strike to help India win its first Olympic gold
Always in the spotlight
When Balbir Singh led independent India to a third consecutive Olympic gold
Guinness World Record holder Balbir Singh Sr
Padma award for Balbir Singh Sr
Respecting and paying tribute to other legends
Balbir Singh ‘The coach and mentor’ of Indian hockey team
Life Time Achievement Award for Balbir Singh
India in his heart – always
Biggest fan of Indian hockey
Always a family man
Icon of the Century
Love and appreciation for the younger lot
The best of Balbir Singh Sr in a single frame
In hindsight, the Britishers probably didn’t want to play India internationally pre-independence because they knew how big a threat India’s hockey team was. In Balbir’s words, the British snub was due to a “sense of false prestige” and “haughty British traits”.
That equation changed completely after seventy minutes of hockey on August 12, 1948, and that too on the British soil.