Balbir Singh, who won three Olympic hockey golds for India and became one of his country’s biggest sporting heroes, has died at the age of 95, his family said Monday.
Singh was in teams that won the Olympic title in London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952 and led the side that won in Melbourne in 1956. His five goals in the 6-1 defeat of the Netherlands in 1952 remain a record for an Olympic final.
However, the Olympic final in 1956 was one where Balbir Singh didn’t score. It was because he was injured and carried a fracture in one of his fingers. In an interview to Fiji Times, he revealed how he decided to play despite not being at his hundred percent.
“I told my coach that I won’t be able to give my best, so I should not play. But he told me that even if i wasn’t able to play my best hockey, my reputation was such that the opponent would use two players to mark me and it would free up space for my other forwards,” Balbir Singh said.
“My injury was kept a secret for the opposition and that I didn’t shake hands with anyone. Just waved. I took pain-killing injections at the start of the game and at half time and managed to play,” he added.
India won that game 1-0 to win their third straight Olympic gold.
Back in 1948, India beat the former colonial power Great Britain 4-0 in 1948 final which came only a few months after his country’s troubled independence.
Singh scored two of India’s goals at Wembley stadium and became one of the biggest stars of the Games. “I was on top of the world,” he said later.
“It was very special to beat the former rulers in their country,” he added.
Singh revealed the emotions he felt during the presentation ceremony.
“When the national anthem was playing and our flag was being raised, I felt as if even I was rising with it in the air,” Singh said.
But before the 1948 Olympics, Balbir Singh was being ignored for reasons unknown. Despite being Punjab’s main centre forward, he wasn’t invited to the pre-Olympic camp in 1948 in Mumbai where 48 players from India were called.
After the intervention of a former hockey Olympian, Balbir Singh was invited two weeks later.
“In the camp too, I was never played in the centre forward position. I was played on the left side,” he said.
Balbir Singh was not selected in the team in India’s first match but when given an opportunity in their second game against Argentina, Singh scored six goals. The rest they say is history.
Brilliant footage from the final here:
Watch the full interview here: