Full of humility, affection and, of course, tales from the golden era of Indian hockey. That was Balbir Singh Dosanjh, the 96-year-old three-time Olympic gold medalist, who passed away in a Mohali hospital Monday, for me.
“Nanji, passed away this morning,” came the message from his grandson Kabir around 8 a.m.
Kabir had for long been providing updates on the great man’s health and this was the one many had dreaded for long.
Personally, having interacted with him on many occasions over the last two decades, it was such a privilege to have known the man better known as Balbir Singh Senior.
Just like with ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh or Bishan Singh Bedi, the former skipper of the Indian cricket team, I absolutely enjoyed my interactions with Balbir Singh Senior too.
First-hand accounts coming from a man who many regarded as the best India has produced after Dhyan Chand were nothing but awe-inspiring.
Between 1948 and 1956, Balbir, along with the rest of his India teammates, won three consecutive Olympic gold medals at London, Helsinki, and Melbourne.
When India hammered Netherlands 6-1 in gold medal match of the Helsinki games, Balbir fired five goals, an individual record in an Olympic final which has remained unbeaten till his last breath.
Conferred with the Padma Shri award in 1957, India’s first sportsperson to have received the honor, Balbir kissed a gold medal once again, this time as team manager, when India won the 1975 World Cup.
Indian hockey team hasn’t tasted the same success again till now.
Yet, in spite of earning all the bragging rights, Balbir didn’t like to talk about his own feats. It was always about the team.
Some who were lucky enough to see a glimpse of Balbir’s skill, speed, endurance, leadership qualities now recall the enormous contribution made by him.
“Today from the moment I heard about Balbir paaji’s demise, so many memories from the 1956 Olympics come back to my mind, especially the manner he rose above everything as India defeated Pakistan in the final,” Tulsidas Balaram, India’s football Olympian from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, wrote on the All India Football Federation (AIFF) website while recollecting moments from the event including the mega final against Pakistan.
“During the 1956 Olympics, we used to stay together. We were like an extended family. I still remember that the Indian contingent used to stay at one corner of the Games Village. Usually, football and hockey training grounds were close by during those days and we used to go for training together — if our schedule permitted us. As an ardent hockey follower since my childhood days, I got a bit star-struck seeing Balbir Singh, Leslie Claudius, Shankar Lakshman, Ranganathan Francis, Amir Kumar and many more. Forgive me if I have missed anyone. Everyone in the team was not just a player but an elegant artist! The coordination between Udham Singh and Balbir Paaji was terrific,” wrote Balaram.
“India’s Greatest Hockey Player since Independence Sardar Balbir Singh Sr is no more… Long Live Sardar Balbir Singh Sr..RIP Legend,” tweeted Bishan Singh Bedi.
India’s Greatest Hockey Player since Independence Sardar Balbir Singh Sr is no more..Long Live Sardar Balbir Singh Sr..RIP Legend.! pic.twitter.com/myDSfsti1r
— Bishan Bedi (@BishanBedi) May 25, 2020
Speaking to the India Narrative, Narinder Batra, President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), who is also the head of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), mourned the huge loss to country’s sports fraternity.
“A measure of a player’s greatness is not just in the skill he exhibits on the hockey pitch but also in the fondness and affection with which he is remembered across nations many years after he last graced the game. Balbir Singh Dosanjh’s life is ample testimony to his greatness,” Batra said.
Many of India’s sporting greats took to Twitter, remembering the time spent with Balbir.
“Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Balbir Singh Sr ji. An, athlete par excellence and a role model beyond words! His bestowed hands may strengthen my passions more. My condolences to his family, friends and fans,” said Payyoli Express P.T. Usha, one of the best track and field athletes India has ever produced.
Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Balbir Singh Sr ji. An athlete par excellence and a role model beyond words! His bestowed hands may strengthen my passions more. My condolences to his family, friends and fans!#balbirsingh #Balbirhockey pic.twitter.com/figkm8ibBW
— P.T. USHA (@PTUshaOfficial) May 25, 2020
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed grief at the passing away of the legendary hockey player.
“Padma Shri Balbir Singh Sr. Ji will be remembered for his memorable sporting performances. He brought home lots of pride and laurels. Undoubtedly a brilliant hockey player, he also made a mark as a great mentor. Pained by his demise. Condolences to his family and well-wishers,” tweeted Modi.
Padma Shri Balbir Singh Sr. Ji will be remembered for his memorable sporting performances. He brought home lots of pride and laurels. Undoubtedly a brilliant hockey player, he also made a mark as a great mentor. Pained by his demise. Condolences to his family and well wishers.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 25, 2020
Home Minister Amit Shah, who had met Balbir at his Chandigarh residence last year, tweeted his photographs with the former India captain, saying “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.”
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
Truly, with the death of Balbir Singh Senior, a glorious, golden chapter of Indian hockey has come to an end.