Balbir Singh Sr was an Indian sporting giant. A winner of three Olympic gold medals, the Indian hockey team never returned empty-handed with Singh in their ranks. Later on even as a coach, Singh guided India to the 1975 World Cup title.
Playing for Punjab Police team before independence, Singh made his international debut in May 1947 against Sri Lanka. A year later he made his bow at the 1948 London Olympics.
The Olympic years
In his very first game against Argentina, Singh smashed six goals before scoring the all-important first two goals in the final against Great Britain that India won 4-0 to clinch its first gold as an independent nation.
Four years later at the 1952 Helsinki Games, he was India’s flag-bearer. He came into his own in the crunch games, scoring thrice in the 3-1 victory over Great Britain in the semi-final before scoring five of India’s goals in the 6-1 win over the Netherlands in the final.
It is a record for most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic hockey final that still stands. Out of the 13 goals India scored in the competition, Balbir Singh netted nine.
At the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Singh was the skipper of the team and continued his goalscoring exploits netting five in the opening game against Afghanistan. He then suffered an injury that ruled him out for the remaining group matches, but he returned for the semi-finals and final that India won beating Pakistan 1-0 for their third straight gold medal.
For his exploits at the Olympics, Balbir Singh became the first sportsman to receive the Padma Shri award in 1957. However, a year later Indian hockey team could only manage a silver medal at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.
The impact of his Olympic heroics continued as in 1958, Balbir Singh and teammate Gurdev Singh featured on a stamp issued by the Dominican Republic to commemorate the 1956 Melbourne Olympics success.
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Coaching and more
After his retirement, Balbir Singh took up coaching. He guided India to their solitary World Cup gold in 1975 before winning the bronze in 1971 edition.
He was given the honour of lighting the torch for the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.
Balbir Singh also served as Secretary of the Punjab State Sports Council and Director of Sports in the Punjab Government. He retired from his Punjab Government duties in 1992.
The Major Dhyan Chand Lifetime Achievement Award was conferred upon him by Hockey India in 2015.
Balbir Singh’s father Dalip Singh Dosanjh was a freedom fighter and his paternal and maternal family belonged to the Phillaur Tehsil in Jalandhar district. He was married to Sushil in 1946 and the couple has a daughter Sushbir and three sons Kanwalbir, Karanbir, Gurbir and are settled in Vancouver, Canada.
The hockey legend had been fighting a pulmonary illness over the last two years and breathed his last on May 25.