Leo Hillary Knowles Pinto does not exactly remember when he picked up hockey. But that lapse in memory owes less to his advanced age and more due to the fact that a young Leo Pinto played every game he could. When Pinto was a student at St Stanislaus High School in Bandra, he represented the school in hockey, football and cricket. “I played everything and I played everything well,” Pinto says with some pride as he sips tea at his home in Bandra, Mumbai.
“Papa was also a very good student you know,” adds Susan Pinto, his daughter and piano maestro.
But, by the time Pinto joined St Xavier’s College in the city in 1932, he had decided that hockey would be his game of choice. It is telling of Pinto’s talent that in just three years, by 1935, Pinto had already been selected for the Bombay State hockey team.
As Pinto sits back in his chair in his living room and begins to talk of the 1948 Olympics, it is not entirely difficult to picture the man on a hockey field protecting his goal from marauding opposition forwards. While his words maybe slower and his fingers have the inevitable tremble of age, Pinto still has the broad shoulders and stocky build that made him a formidable opponent.
Leo Pinto was the goalkeeper of the 1948 gold medal winning hockey team. (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
In 1936, at just 22, Pinto was already shining at the national stage. “I was the best goalie in India at the time. There was no question of me not going to the Berlin Olympics.” Still, the Indian Hockey Federation selectors summoned all local teams to Kolkata for trials.
In the semi-finals, Pinto leapt to block a shot from Manavadar’s Shahabuddin. “In those days, we didn’t have all this padding and protection. Goalkeepers had a pair of gloves and some thin shinguards,” Pinto recalls. Shahabuddin’s shot broke Pinto’s collarbone, blood began pouring out of his ears and he was rushed to the Presidency Hospital in Kolkata. While he was still in hospital, the team left for Berlin.
Among the members of the gold-winning team were Dhyan Chand and Shahabuddin.
Pinto would have to wait for 12 more years before he got a shot at the Olympics again. This time he made sure he went. His performance in the 1948 tour of Kenya was good enough to win the attention of the Tata Sports Academy. Thus, would begin a relationship that would last for decades. Pinto’s consistent performance also opened the doors to Olympic glory.
In 1948, when the Indian team arrived in London, Pinto was there to finally make his Olympic dreams come true.
“It was a dream come true. Never did I realize that I would be there at the Olympics. But when we won the gold medal… I will never forget that moment,” Pinto pauses for a moment while he speaks and then he looks up at a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall, “all thanks to the grace of God”.