The Greatest Hockey Player Ever, CHARLES GILLIS
But Forgotten In Hindutva’s India:
Balbir Singh Sr.
A FORGOTTEN LEGEND: BALBIR SINGH Sr., TRIPLE OLYMPIC GOLD & MODI’S NEW INDIA, by Patrick Blennerhassett, Now or Never Publishing, Vancouver, Canada, 2016. English, pp 342, paperback, Cdn $24.95. ISBN-10: 1988098106; ISBN-13: 978-1988098104
In the run-up to the 2012 Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) dialed up Balbir Singh Sr. with a flattering request. They wanted to borrow the baby-blue captain’s blazer he’d worn during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne -- scene of Balbir’s third gold medal as a member of India’s once-invincible field hockey team.
The win had been a crowning event in his newly independent country’s sporting history, and IOC curators saw the jacket as a perfect artifact for an exhibition they planned to stage in London during the Games.
Balbir Singh Sr., a proud member of the Olympic family, was happy to help, but there was a hitch: He’d donated the jacket decades earlier to the Sports Authority of India, and bureaucrats at the governing body were having trouble locating it.
You’d think the blazer would qualify as a relic, along with the three dozen medals and a stack of historic photos Balbir passed on to the authority in 1985. They represented the halcyon days of Indian field hockey, after all, and on paper, Balbir was the game’s Gordie Howe -- a living legend whose on-field performances live on in record books and bits of grainy film.
But a desultory round of rummaging by officials failed to turn up the blazer, while access to information requests filed by his family pointed to a galling conclusion: the jacket had been lost, or possibly stolen, along with the rest of Balbir’s memorabilia.
Only now had anyone noticed.
Balbir was upset.
“I donated these items to inspire the younger generations,” the still-spry 91-year-old told Maclean’s Magazine last week. But he was far from surprised. The loss of his souvenirs counts in a series of oversights, omissions and outright snubs by his birth country, India, that have arguably made Balbir the world’s most underappreciated sports legend.
Field hockey is second only to cricket among the passions of Indian sports fans. But as a Sikh star amid an increasingly ‘prideful’ Hindu majority, he’s been all but airbrushed from India’s collective memory, eclipsed by athletes who adhere to the country’s dominant religion.
His childhood hero Dhyan Chand, a Hindu centre forward who played during the British Raj, is widely celebrated as the country’s greatest-ever athlete. He’s had stadiums named, statues erected and national sports awards titled in his honour.
But as Canadian author Patrick Blennerhassett writes in “A Forgotten Legend“, a new book about Balbir Singh Sr., Chand’s numbers were inflated because he played alongside Pakistani and British-Indian stars prior to the partition of the subcontinent.
Balbir meanwhile lives with his son and daughter-in-law in a modest townhouse in Burnaby, British Columbia, unrecognized by passers-by when he walks the family dog. Now a Canadian citizen, he returns to Punjab for a few months each year, staying with extended family in the northern city of Chandigarh. There, too, he roams the streets in relative anonymity, his snow-white beard and red turban familiar only to close friends and relatives.
“I’m better known and recognized abroad by international fans,” he says matter-of-factly, “than I am by Indians.”
Blennerhassett hopes to change that.
In 2014, the Vancouver-based journalist travelled to Chandigarh to meet Balbir, thinking he’d write a magazine story about him, but soon got wrapped up in what he viewed as a historic injustice.
“Not once did somebody come up and say, ‘Oh, are you Balbir Singh Sr.?’ If you were walking around any country with any of its iconic athletes, you’d be mobbed. Wayne Gretzky in Canada. Pelé in Brazil. These people have been instantly recognizable. Balbir’s not, and just seeing that made me think that this was an issue.”
Blennerhassett’s argument for Balbir’s primacy boils down to the relative competitiveness of postwar hockey. When Chand played, he argues, the British Raj had virtually no competition, so his 40 goals in Olympic play must be discounted when considered against Balbir’s 22.
Much has been made, too, of India’s triumph over Nazi Germany in the 1936 Olympic final -- the last of three gold medals to which Chand led his team. But the 8-1 shellacking typified the lopsided scores racked up by a team stacked with the best Hindu, Muslim and Sikh players living under British rule.
Only after independence and partition in 1947 did real competition emerge. Pakistan and Britain formed formidable sides of their own, while the Netherlands, Germany and Australia renewed their interest in the sport.
As a result, the international hockey scene Balbir entered in the late 1940s was much tougher than that faced by his idol. What’s more, within India’s Hindu-led field hockey system, he was vulnerable to internal politics and cronyism.
At the 1948 Summer Games in London, for instance, he scored six goals in a preliminary-round game, only to be scratched from the next two matches for players with better social connections. His Games were saved by a group of Indian medical students from the University of Oxford, who complained about Balbir’s absence to their country’s high commissioner (ambassador) in London.
Pencilled in for the final against Great Britain, he scored twice in a 4-0 win.
It doesn’t get much more symbolic. India had won its first gold medal as a sovereign country against its former colonial master, marvels Balbir.
“And we did it in our former master’s home.”
Balbir, meanwhile, had demonstrated his capacity for big-game dramatics. Four years later in Helsinki, he scored five times in India’s 6-1 gold-medal victory over the Netherlands, setting a record for goals in an Olympic final that stands to this day. In 1956, he played the final in Melbourne with a broken finger, a character performance that helped squeeze out a 2-1 win over Germany.
Balbir went on manage India’s national men’s team, winning a World Cup title in 1975. But his achievements were soon overshadowed by waves of religious violence that engulfed India, culminating in the 1984 military assault on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the retaliatory assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.
In the early 1980s, he followed his three sons to Canada, where he made a part-time home, and the snubs have piled up ever since. Organizers of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi left him out of their ceremonies, hastily sending standard event tickets after his family members brought the omission to their attention.
Media lists of greatest-ever hockey players routinely leave him out.
On a couple of occasions, major Indian newspapers have misidentified him in photo captions.
To Blennerhassett, this is not so much a case of explicit discrimination as unacknowledged bias, which he says has deepened as religion has exerted itself in Indian politics.
The subtitle of his book, “Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi’s New India“, refers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP, who has sought to portray India’s religious majority as tolerant.
Blennerhassett has his doubts.
“If you ask whether the marginalizing of Balbir Singh Sr. is a religious thing,” he says, “most Indians will flatly deny it and get angry at you. For a journalist, that seems a sure sign they’re either not telling the truth or trying to hide something.”
The sad thing is, if the government wished to rise above religious chauvinism, it could find no better unifying symbol than Balbir. Throughout his life, he’s had little interest in religious sectarianism or caste politics. In 1984, while attending a match at the Summer Games in Los Angeles, the aging legend grabbed an Indian flag from a Sikh protester who was tearing it to pieces.
“He’s a Sikh by birth and a secularist and a nationalist by choice,” explains Ringo Singh Dosanjh, the son with whom Balbir now lives. “He believes in equality of all people. They could leverage him, politically, and he could become an international spokesperson for Indian sports.”
At least part of that message might finally be getting through, thanks to his family’s efforts to restore his profile.
In the summer of 2014, Modi’s newly appointed sports minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, dropped by Balbir’s home in Chandigarh to apologize over the missing artifacts, touching the elder’s feet in a gesture of respect.
Then, two weeks ago, the Sports Authority granted Balbir a lifetime achievement award. He was delighted enough by the honour to overlook the scant mention it received in the Indian press, and to ignore the fact the award itself is named after Dhyan Chand.
By now, he’s used to such things.
For more info, or to purchase this book, please CLICK here.
[Courtesy: Maclean’s. Edited for sikhchic.com]
Patrick Blennerhassett is a Vancouver-based writer and journalist. He’s a Jack Webster Fellowship Award winner and has published two previous fiction novels.
March 9, 2019
Conversation about this article
1: Simran Kaur (Buffalo, New York State, USA), March 09, 2016, 4:27 PM.
So sad ... this story captures the steady decline of a new nation, a rot which began from the very day of its birth. I hope readers will support this book by buying it, one for every household. It is THIS kind of activism we need in our community, urgently.
2: Arjan Singh (USA), March 10, 2016, 2:14 AM.
One must not be surprised about the revelations described in this book. Of course I know about S. Balbir Singh, and about his achievements as a sports star. Happy to know that he lives permanently in Canada and not in that ungrateful country called India. My theory is that the sport of Hockey has been given the slow death in India because of the conscious exclusion of Sikh players who had dominated the sport and Punjab had historically supplied a steady supply of champions. It probably dawned on the unscrupulous Indian politicians that so many Sikh hockey players representing the sport at the Olympics or other international hockey events would show the Sikhs in a positive light. Therefore, they decided to sacrifice an entire sport to downplay the role of Sikh players. S. Balbir Singh is not the only one to lament the lack of recognition of sports champions in India. Several sports stars from other religious backgrounds as well have either left the sport or have pawned their hard-earned medals on the streets to survive, since state-sponsored support has been lacking. What an absolute shame!
3: Arjan Singh (USA), March 10, 2016, 2:17 AM.
Sikhchic.com, thanks for this article ... you made me cry today. The fact that they stole the Blazer and medals of this world-known sports champion is not only sad but disgraceful.
4: Arjan Singh (USA), March 10, 2016, 11:13 AM.
For those readers that might be interested in having their kids play this wonderful sport, there is hope in USA and Canada. Quite literally and as always the Sikh community is going to save the day. There is a field hockey coach in Canada who has been training the next generation for many years. He is the former Canadian and USA National team coach, and learned his craft in the hockey fields of Punjab. Here is a link to this website: http://www.coachshiv.com/coaching-academy-programs/ Interestingly, there are camps and friendly matches held between teams from Canada and USA, in California.
5: Gurteg Singh (New York, USA), March 10, 2016, 12:31 PM.
I don't know why we are so surprised at the treatment of this Sikh hockey legend! In India you have to murder tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi and across India and in return you get a magnificent memorial named as "Vir Sthal" for the 'brave' Hindu son, Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly, you have to murder thousands of Muslims in Gujarat and be a Hindu fascist to get the coveted title of Prime Minister of India and have a temple built in your name. Only when you have sent in an army to assault with brute force the Sikh holiest of holies, Sri Harmandar Sahib, kill thousands of innocent Sikhs and slam martial law in Punjab against the very people who freed India from centuries of slavery, that you are glorified as "Durga Mata' and 'Bharat Mata."
6: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), March 11, 2016, 2:05 PM.
I think that this case highlights quite well the treatment that Sikhs face in India today. This article, however, raises another issue which deeply bothers me. This man was sidelined by the Indian government and his achievements were completely disregarded. Yet he was still willing to defend this country by stopping the protester from ripping apart the Indian flag. I would like to apologize if it seems that I am nitpicking, but this kind of defense of India by Sikhs is something which has been bothering me as of recently. As we move further away from 1984, Sikhs are beginning to listen to the twisting of history which has been presented from the Indian perspective relating to 1984. Sikhs didn't sympathize with the victims when 1984 happened and they have moved further away from them as time progresses. If you defend a country which rapes and murders your people intentionally, then I am sorry but you deserve the negative effects that come with that kind of association.
7: Rup Singh (Canada), March 11, 2016, 8:48 PM.
@6 - Thank you, I could not have said it any better. As history shows in relation to oppressed people, when they got slapped once and then turn the other cheek, guess what,they got slapped again.
8: Arjan Singh (USA), March 11, 2016, 10:41 PM.
Sunny ji, thank you so much for getting to the root of the current state of dysfunction in the Sikh community. My guess is that you had probably moved to Canada at a young age or were born and raised in Canada. This allows you to ignore all the lies and deceit that the Indian society and media is spewing out. Indian society acts in funny ways; you have described it well so I will not even repeat it. But you nailed it that the Sikh community itself has abandoned the victims of 1984. This is in direct contrast with the massacres of 1947; when we stuck it out and rose from the ashes gracefully. Even in my own family, I have members that have tried to convince me that India is a wonderful country and 1984 was just an anomaly. In spite of many rounds of violence since 1984, the Indians keep convincing themselves that no major sectarian tensions or violence exist among them.
9: Inder Singh (San Francisco, California, USA), March 23, 2016, 2:28 AM.
This is a very touching story.
10: Tanbir Singh Grewal (Goa, India), March 23, 2016, 10:40 AM.
Great article, looking forward to the book being released in India. Whilst it true the government and the sports authority deserve no respect in their treatment of such Legends, more disheartening is the lack of such information in the public domain. The Punjab Government should honour men and women like Sardar Balbir Singh Sr. and their achievements. We as a community have also failed heroes like him!