In what is seen as a massive loss for Indian hockey and and end of an era, Legendary Balbir Singh Sr, one of India’s greatest hockey players who won three Olympic gold medals in a stellar career, died at a hospital after battling multiple health issues for over two weeks.
One of the country’s most accomplished athletes, Singh was the only Indian among 16 legends chosen by the International Olympic Committee across modern Olympic history.
His world record for most goals scored by an individual in the men’s hockey final of the Olympics still remains unbeaten.
He had scored five goals in India’s 6-1 victory over the Netherlands in the gold medal match of the 1952 Helsinki Games. He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 1957.
That was the first time an athlete was conferred the prestigious civillian honour. Singh’s three Olympic gold medals came in London (1948), Helsinki (1952) as vice-captain, and Melbourne (1956) as captain.
He was also the manager of India’s only World Cup-winning side in 1975. It was the fourth time in the past two years that the former captain and coach was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). In January last year, Singh spent more than three months in hospital because of bronchial pneumonia.
The legendary centre-forward was 96 and is survived by his daughter Sushbir and three sons Kanwalbir, Karanbir, and Gurbir. His sons are settled in Canada and he used to live here with his daughter and grandson Kabir.
“He died at around 6:30 this morning,” Abhijit Singh, Director Fortis Hospital, Mohali, where he was admitted since May 8, told PTI. It is learnt that Singh breathed his last at 6:15am. His maternal grandson Kabir later sent out a message stating, “Nanaji passed away this morning.”
The three-time Olympic gold medallist was in a semi-comatose state since May 18 and had developed a blood clot in his brain after being first admitted to the hospital for bronchial pneumonia with high fever. He was tested for COVID-19 but reports came out negative. Singh suffered three cardiac arrests during the course of his treatment.
As soon as the news of his death came tributes started pouring in, Union Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted , Pained to learn about the demise of Padma Shri Balbir Singh Sr ji, a legendary hockey player, who left indelible imprint on world hockey with his stick.
Pained to learn about the demise of Padma Shri Balbir Singh Sr ji, a legendary hockey player, who left indelible imprint on world hockey with his stick.
I was fortunate to have met the lively and joyful Balbir ji, a three time Olympic gold medalist. My condolences to his family. pic.twitter.com/rgQFi3yB8V
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) May 25, 2020
Considered at par with Major Dhyan Chand in skills, Singh was among independent India’s biggest hockey stars.
Singh and Dhyan Chand never played together but are regarded as the jewels of Indian hockey, who inspired an entire generation of hockey players.
While Dhyan Chand garnered more recognition, especially since his achievements came under the British rule, Singh’s exploits were no less impactful.
Born in 1924 in Punjab’s Haripur Khalsa village, he was spotted by Harbail Singh, who was the then coach of Khalsa College and later coached India to back-to-back gold medals in 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Singh won three consecutive Olympic gold medals just like the more celebrated Dhyan Chand but lived a quieter life.
In the past few years, there was clamour for him to be honoured with the Bharat Ratna with Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh even writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding the country’s highest civilian award for him.
A soft-spoken man but a hard task-master on the turf is how the players, who competed under the legend, recall him. “He was a very soft-spoken person whose only concern was playing and teaching hockey. He was a hard task master.
“I still remember how he imbibed, self belief and unity which helped us to win the 1975 World Cup,” captain of that side, Ajit Pal Singh, told PTI remembering Singh.