Singh on song for India
A three-time Olympic gold medallist, Indian field hockey legend Balbir Singh holds the record for the number of individual goals – five, against the Netherlands at Helsinki 1952 – in an Olympic final.
Three out of six
The Indian men’s hockey team recorded a historic sequence of six consecutive Olympic titles between 1928 and 1956. Their prolific forward Balbir Singh played a key role in the latter three of those famous triumphs, scoring crucial goals and captaining his team to glory in 1956.
Singh was 23 when he made his Olympic debut, spearheading India’s attack against Argentina in their second match of the 1948 Games in London. He made an immediate impact, scoring a hat-trick in an impressive 9-1 victory. On Thursday 12 August 1948, 25,000 fans packed into Wembley Stadium for a much-anticipated gold-medal match between Great Britain and India, during which the Asians proved much too strong for the hosts. Singh was instrumental in the 4-0 win, netting twice in the first half.
The resounding result delivered a first major sporting triumph to a country that had only achieved independence the previous year. “Those feelings of joy and happiness are difficult to explain,” recalled Singh 65 years later. “You have to experience it. But I was so happy – on top of the world! Those first Games in 1948 are still fresh in my mind.”
Four years later, the Punjab native assumed the role of India’s flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony of Helsinki 1952. Having been appointed vice-captain of the team, he set a fine example by displaying sparkling form throughout the Olympic hockey tournament.
In the semi-final versus Great Britain, he scored all of his country’s goals in a 3-1 win, while in the final against the Netherlands, he proved unstoppable, slotting the ball past Dutch goalkeeper Lau Mulder five times – an individual scoring record that still stands to this day – in a comprehensive 6-1 victory. In total, he racked up nine of India’s 13 goals at the Helsinki Games.
By the time the Melbourne Games came around in 1956, Singh had been promoted to captain. The added responsibility did not prove burdensome, as he led his team-mates to a third successive Olympic title by defeating Pakistan 1-0 in the final. During their opening match with Afghanistan, he again struck five times as India ran out 14-0 winners, but he then suffered an injury that sidelined him until the semi-finals, where he helped his nation to beat Germany 1-0 and advance to the gold medal match.
In 1957, the three-time Olympic champion became the first athlete to be awarded the “Padma Shri”, one of India’s highest civilian honours. He continued to represent India on the hockey pitch until the beginning of the 1960s, picking up silver medals at the Asian Games of 1958 and 1962, prior to moving into coaching and management. In 1975, Singh managed the Indian hockey team that emerged victorious from the 1975 World Cup, further cementing his status as one of the greatest sporting figures his country has ever produced.