2020 has not been a happy year for sports in India. After the Covid-19 pandemic led to a lockdown resulting in the lack of organized sports for months, sports fans were already distressed. Then came the unfortunate deaths of some extremely talented athletes who were legends and some of the best India had ever produced in history. PK Banerjee was the first, creating shockwaves in Indian football community. A month later, the multi-sport legend, and PK’s teammate in Indian National Football Team, Chuni Goswami, passed away as well. Now the unfortunate death of Balbir Singh Sr adds to the saddened state of sports fans across the nation.
When Balbir Singh played Hockey at International singh, he was simply known as Balbir Singh. But alike the Ronaldo situation in Brazil, there have been multiple Balbir Singhs playing for the Indian team in respected careers. A quick Wikipedia search leads us to four Balbir Singhs, all of them being a part of the national team at some point or the other, and all of them medalists at the Olympics! Thus, the oldest amongst them by far, the recently deceased Balbir Singh was termed Balbir Singh Sr by the community.
Born on 31st December, 1923 at Haripur Khalsa in Punjab when India was still an undivided nation, a newsreel on India’s triumph at the 1936 Olympics instigated the dream of playing hockey in him. He was, six years later, spotted by Harbail Singh, the coach of the Hockey team representing Khalsa College. Balbir painstakingly received permission from his parents to shift from National College at Lahore to Amritsar, and his journey began.
In 1942-43, Balbir represented Punjab University, then allowing students of neighbouring states, including Jammu & Kashmir, Sindh and Rajasthan to represent them, apart from the students of undivided Punjab. With Balbir captaining the team, they won the All India Inter-University Title three times in a row (1943,44,45). Also, Balbir played for Punjab Police for a long time, captaining the team from 1941 to 1961.
Getting into the national team for his talents, Balbir was included in the team representing the nation at the London Olympics 1948. The newly independent India won the Gold as Balbir scored the first two goals in a 4-0 final victory against their oppressors.
In 1952 Helsinki Olympics, with KD ‘Babu’ Singh captaining the squad, Balbir was chosen to be the vice-captain. Balbir was the flag-bearer for the Indian contignent. Balbir reignited memories of the unforgettable Dhyan Chand, by scoring a hat-trick at the semifinal and scoring five goals in a 6-1 final victory over Netherlands. With this heroics, Balbir became the only man to have scored five goals in an Olympic final. In total, he scored 9 goals in the tournament.
In 1956, Balbir had everything going for him as he was captain of the squad. In the first match against Afghanistan, he brought back memories of the 1952 finals with another five goal brilliance. Unfortunately, he was injured and had to skip a number of matches. He returned in the semifinal and final, helping India to another Olympic Gold.
In 1958, Balbir was the part of the Indian Team which won a silver medal at the Asian Games. A year earlier, he had been honoured with the Padma Shri, the first sportsperson who have ever honoured with the Padma Awards. His later included coaching the Indian team to medals at the World Cup and writing a duo of autobiographical books.
The passing of a legend of such unimaginable history and achievements is indeed a sad event in the history of Indian sports. Today, as Hockey has evolved from grass to AstroTurf, India has not been able to keep up, and while they keep appearing regularly at the World Cups and the Olympics, medals are few and far between. Stories of Dhyan Chand and Balbir Singh Sr now feels like myths and legends. India surely lost one of its finest. Rest In Peace, Balbir Singh.