Whenever he was asked to narrate his journey to greatness, Balbir Singh Senior could never find the right words. “It can’t be explained,” he often repeated. “It can only be experienced.”
A goal-scoring machine from the days when hockey was played on grass, Balbir won three Olympic golds — 1948, 1952 and 1956 — and was India’s most-decorated athlete ever.
A globally-recognised figure, whose contribution was acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2012, the soft-spoken, modest-to-a-fault legend was named among the world’s 16 greatest icons, across all sports, who took the Olympic movement to lofty heights in the last 100 years.
Son of a freedom fighter, Balbir had a difficult initiation into hockey. He grew up in Moga, detesting the police who had jailed his father multiple times. The same police force, as fate would have it, would shape his hockey career.
The story goes that in 1945, the then Punjab Inspector General of Police, John Bennettt, was so mesmerised by Balbir’s play that he commanded his officers to recruit him. To avoid them, the young hockey player fled to Delhi and instead joined the Central Public Works Department team.
Days later, Balbir was handcuffed and brought back to Jalandhar, where Bennett presented him with two options: be jailed or play hockey.