Balbir Singh has arrived in London for the 2012 Olympics. He is immaculately dressed. Now a sprightly great grandfather of 87, he stands outside the magnificent Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, recalling his memories of the momentous hockey final in the 1948 London Olympics.
Along with 1908, London has the distinction of being the only city to have staged the Olympic Games three times. Obviously this time, the affair is on an altogether grander scale. But for India and for Balbir Singh in particular, 1948 - the Second World War was over just three years ago, marked a coming of age.
This is because at Wembley on August 12, 1948, India beat Great Britain 4-0 to take gold, with Balbir, then 24, scoring the first two goals. The gold was very special for India, emphasised Balbir. India had won hockey gold in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics but as a British colony, he pointed out.
In 1948, however, “India won as a sovereign nation for the first time and the Indian tricolour went high up in the sky and our national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, sounded sweet”, Balbir remembered.
Indians tend to refer to him as ‘Balbir Singh Senior’ to distinguish him from the, at least, three other Balbir Singhs who have played for India. Anyway, this Balbir's story, along with those of 15 other iconic Olympians - they include Steve Redgrave, Cathy Freeman, Kelly Holmes, Olga Korbut, Jesse Owens and Aleksandr Karelin is highlighted in an exhibition being held at the Royal Opera House.
It traces the history of the Olympic Games from its creation in 776 BC in ancient Greece through to the London 2012 Olympics.
This exhibition, “The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games”, said to be “a collaboration between the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, the Royal Opera House and BP, celebrates human strength and endeavour, passion, determination, hard work and achievement”.
Ruth Mackenzie, London 2012 Festival Director, said that the exhibition “will offer a once-in-a-lifetime free opportunity to see extraordinary artefacts telling inspirational stories throughout the history of the Olympic Games right in the heart of London”.
Today’s Indian corporates, buoyed by India's economic growth, tend to be an arrogant lot (they talk very loudly on London Underground trains, for example). But for an Indian of Balbir's generation, meeting the British in London a year after independence, was almost a shock. “We had seen them as our rulers, strict and sometimes treacherous. We had seen them in the police and in the army. We hated them at that time. Then we came here - (they were) altogether different, very, very hospitable, very friendly, gracious, so polite and humble. We never had expected that.”
Fast forward to 2005 when Balbir joined other Sikh Olympians at Trafalgar Square in London during the festival of Vaisakhi and strongly backed Britain’s bid to stage the games in 2012. Balbir was told by the then mayor Ken Livingstone’s team, “We appreciate your support and in return if London wins, we will invite you as a guest to the Games.” His close friend, Dil Bahra, 62, revealed."London did get the Olympics but the promised invitation to Balbir was forgotten."
Dil, who served in the British army and then retired from the Metropolitan Police after 32 years with the rank of inspector, is a remarkable hockey historian who runs a website for Sikh Olympians and also helps run the recently established National Hockey Museum.
Dil said: "Balbir will receive tickets to a few matches from the International Hockey Federation but the world's most famous living hockey player was used and then dumped by Livingstone's officials".
Balbir is a little hurt but too polite to complain. He prefers to take a positive view of his own and India's hockey heritage.
“Whatever I am today, it’s because of hockey,” acknowledged a proud Balbir, who will watch some of the hockey matches in the next few days. “Hockey is India’s national game and I feel honoured to have played that game and won three gold medals.”
Balbir was also a member of the Indian team that took hockey gold in 1952 in Helsinki beating Holland 6-1 (Balbir's five goals, scored using a "made in Sialkot" hockey stick, remains enshrined in the Guinness World Records). And he was captain in 1956 in Melbourne when Pakistan was defeated 1-0. That year he was the Indian flag bearer. The following year he became the first recipient of the Padma Shri award in the sports category. "I played European style of hockey," he said. "I never wasted time in dribbling midfield - my idea was to send the ball to the other end."
He is remarkably upbeat about the direction of sport in India. “Off late things have improved a lot. This time our boys and girls will do much better than in previous years in different sports: archery, boxing, tennis, badminton - that Saina Nehwal has been doing an excellent job, she is a wonderful girl. Shooting is good but we are better in archery, I think. Abhinav Bindra will be there. In hockey, I will be very happy if we finish in the first five.”
Balbir now divides his time between his three sons in Vancouver in Canada and his daughter in Chandigarh. Twice a year when he is in transit, he stays with his sister in Hounslow, as he is doing now.
He misses his supportive wife, Sushil, whom he married in November 1946 and who died in 1983. “I couldn't have done it without her."”
He attributes his good health to twice-daily walks of an hour, deep breathing exercise during yoga and a fondness for “fresh vegetables”.
Tourists in London visiting the Royal Opera House will appreciate that Balbir’s personal story is set against the long history of the Olympics. Walk into the foyer of the Royal Opera House, experience the heat and dust of Athens and discover the origins of the Ancient Olympic Games which featured athletics, combat and chariot races," visitors are urged.
They are told, “Hear the cheers, get caught up in the thrill of the contest, and enjoy multimedia material and artefacts telling the story of the Olympics through the creation of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin (Frenchman considered the father of the modern Olympic Games) to the vast Olympic movement we see today. See all the Summer Olympic torches since 1936 and all the Summer Olympic medals from 1896, and imagine yourself in Pierre de Coubertin’s office with a backdrop of the lake in Lausanne as inspiration.”
Balbir is not done yet. He hopes to attend the Olympic Games in 2016, 2020 and especially 2024. Balbir, who was born in Punjab in the village of Haripur, district Jullundur on October 10, 1924, expressed a love of living: “May I complete the century in 2024 and see the Indian team doing better and better in the coming Olympics.”
He feels the force is with him: “My son's house number where I stay in Canada is 2024.”