British Columbia

Burnaby man was once India's biggest field hockey star

Burnaby's Balbir Singh, 92, carried India to Olympic field hockey gold in 1948, 1952, and 1956. His story is now the subject of a new book: A Forgotten Legend.

Balbir Singh, 92, carried India to Olympic field hockey gold in 1948, 1952, and 1956

Balbir Singh, 92, is the subject of a new book about his life and legacy in the sport of field hockey. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Post-partition India's field hockey team was the best in the world. The team won gold medal at the Olympic games in 1948, 1952, and 1956.

During those years, there was one player who carried the team to victory, a Sikh named Balbir Singh. 

He struggled to even get a place on the team for the 1948 games in London, but scored the majority of the team's goals in the semi-finals and half of India's goals in a triumphant gold medal victory over the home team, Great Britain. 

"We enjoyed it. In the country of our rulers, on the ground of our rulers we defeated them," Singh said, as he remembered the cheers in the packed stadium. "It was thrilling. I was feeling very happy."

India had recently achieved independence, but had been torn apart, leading to the formation of India and neighbouring Pakistan. 

"When we won, the Indian national anthem was played, it sounded very sweet. When the national flag — the Indian national flag — was slightly going up [the mast]," recalled Singh. "I felt like I also was flying high in the sky. That was the feeling."

Singh went on to score many more goals and carry the country's team to victory in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic games.

But according to Vancouver author Patrick Blennerhassett, Singh's story is overshadowed in his home country by an earlier field hockey star, a Hindu player named Dhyan Chand.

Balbir Singh holds a copy of a new book about his life and legacy in field hockey. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

That's one of the main reasons Blennerhassett wrote the book, to raise awareness of Singh's contribution to the sport and India's history. 

"When you go to India and spend time with him — you spend time with him in his home town — you realize he's just an average guy and when he's in Canada he just walks around as just an average person," said Blennerhassett.

"I would pose the question, would you ever walk around with Wayne Gretzky as an average person? Would you ever walk around with any superstar athlete for their home country, you know [Diego] Maradona in Argentina, Pelé in Brazil?"

Singh moved to Canada in the 1980s and became a Canadian citizen. Now at 92 years old, he lives in Burnaby, but spends a few months in India each year.

Patrick Blennerhassett is the author of A Forgotten Legend about the life of Indian field hockey star Balbir Singh, who now lives in Burnaby. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Until recent years, he still got out onto the pitch to play the sport he loves.

"My life is a life-long association with hockey — field hockey. I love that game," he said.

"To do what he did, to go to London so shortly after partition, I think it's an often overlooked part of world history," said Blennerhassett.

"I think at the end of the day, hearing Balbir's story and hearing that he is essentially dedicating his life, not only to field hockey, but to his country, after a while I couldn't sleep at night and I couldn't think about anything else."

Blennerhassett's book, A Forgotten Legend, will be available next month.


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