Balbir Singh remembers the events of 12 August 1948 as if they were yesterday. Some 25,000 spectators packed into the stands at Wembley Stadium for the final of the men’s Olympic hockey tournament between the host nation Great Britain and India. The Punjab-born forward, then 23, recalls how he looked up to see Queen Elizabeth – the last Empress of India until independence a year before - in the VIP enclosure. And he still remembers the last words of advice from the Indian coach before taking to the field: “Don’t wait for the ball, chase after it!”
Over the next hour, the Indian team overpowered the hosts, who failed to cope with their inventive midfield play and high-tempo wing play. Singh scored twice in the first half to set India on their way to a resounding 4-0 victory.
It was a historic result on several counts. Not only was it the first ever encounter between India and Great Britain at the Olympic Games, it was also the first major sporting triumph for the former since it gained independence.
Singh says he will never forget the sportsmanship of the British fans, and seven decades on, he can still hear the cries of “Well played Balbir” that reverberated around Wembley. He also remembers how his captain finished the match in bare feet, after deciding that the playing surface was too slippy!
Recalling his first gold in London, Singh says: “It’s impossible to explain the feeling of joy and happiness. You have to experience it. I was so happy. I was on top of the world. The memory of my first Olympic Games in 1948 is still fresh in my mind…”
For Singh, triumph in London was just the start of a glorious Olympic career. In Helsinki four years later, India mounted a successful defence of their title, defeating the Netherlands 6-1 in the final… and this time Singh was the undisputed star of the show, scoring no less than five goals, an individual scoring record in an Olympic hockey match that stands to this day.
At Melbourne 1956, Singh, by now 31, captained the Indian team which secured a third consecutive gold, this time thanks to a close-fought 1-0 victory over neighbours Pakistan. He carried on playing at the top level until the early 1960s, adding silver medals at the Asian Games in 1958 and 1962, before embarking on a career as a coach, going on to manage the Indian team that won the Hockey World Cup in 1975.