For Balbir Singh Sr, the 1948 Olympics really did stand for independence, particularly as he started his professional field hockey career in handcuffs. In 1945, Sir John Bennett, the British inspector-general in Punjab, watched Singh play in a college match and decided he had to play for the Punjab police team. But with his father jailed and tortured by the British, Singh wanted nothing to do with the government. So, he ran away to Delhi.
But Bennett wouldn’t let a good player escape that easily. He promptly sent officers to arrest Singh and brought him back to join the police service. Once resigned to his fate, Singh became one of the top players in the team.
Three years later, on landing in London, the first person to greet the Indian hockey team was none other than Bennett himself, then a member of the Olympic Reception Committee. “We were scared of him… But he told everybody that he was the person that recruited me, and he gave me a couple of tips. I was also happy because he hugged me, and said, ‘I am proud of you’. This would have never happened if he was still there in India—it was not possible. But it happened then.”
He stops his quick banter and drifts back into memory: “The national flag, the anthem, it was something that could be experienced, but not explained.”
He said the team only had a short time to practice, four-six weeks in Mumbai, before leaving for London. And, it was a team unlike any he had played in before—it had players from all over the country. His Punjabi coach would call the team “parliament”, with members from Nagaland, West Bengal, Kerala, almost every state. Singh was relieved to be in a new team; partition had left the Punjab team in shambles—most of the players and his coach were now in Pakistan.
When the team returned to India, Singh recalls, people lined the roads and garlanded the players as they paraded past in convertibles. The team played an exhibition match in Delhi. Singh says the stadium was so full; then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru came, but then complained to the papers the next day “he could not see the match because of so much crowd, everybody was there”.
Besides the 1948 Olympics hockey gold medal in London, Singh went on to win two more gold medals, in 1952 (Helsinki) and, as team captain, in 1956 (Melbourne). He received the Padmashree in 1957. He also coached and managed the Indian national team in the World Cup Hockey games in 1975.
He bemoans the loss of pride in Indian field hockey, saying that the popularity of cricket, “a game for lords in England and rich people in Australia” had usurped the country’s national game. But “I’m still alive, dreaming that one day, India will be at the top again”, he adds.
Flipping through the photos in his 1977 biography, The Golden Hat Trick, Singh points out: “The first Indian gold medal of India, the first prime minister of India”. He trails off: “So many firsts.”