The last of the hockey icons, Balbir Singh Sr turned 90 on Tuesday, looking back with satisfaction at his long and rewarding tryst with hockey, which he calls his "first love", but sad at the state of the game in India.
Gentle and soft-spoken as ever, ramrod straight Balbir belies his years. Triple gold Olympian and a victorious Olympic captain, he was also the chief coach and manager of the team that won the one and only World Cup hockey title for India in 1975.
Chosen as one of the 16 ‘iconic Olympians’ across all disciplines since 1896, the start of the modern Olympic era, Balbir was honoured by the International Olympic Committee during the 2012 London Olympics along with other great sportsmen such as legendary sprinter the late Jesse Owens.
Balbir remains the holder of Olympic and world record for the most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic men's hockey final for scoring 5 out of the 6 goals against Holland in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He captained the Indian team that won the title in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Despite an outstanding career, Balbir remains a modest man and has to be coaxed into talking about his achievements. ‘I was very lucky’, he says.
He calls hockey ‘my Goddess, my first love and my darling’. He is still waiting for his ‘hockey fairy’ who would help India regain its glory in the game. Asked about the state of Indian hockey, Balbir replies, “Very bad. I did not want to say this word. I feel dejected. I am sad,”
He recalled that when he was being honoured during the London Olympics, the Indian team had not won a single match which had shocked him. "Balbir comes and Balbir goes but India is there forever. It is India which is more important".
What is wrong with Indian hockey, he was asked, to which he replied, “Coaches, training, physical fitness, the way the game is run.”
Balbir reckons that depending on foreign coaches alone to lift the standard of hockey in the country may not be enough as they are "over qualified" for the job.