RIP Balbir Singh Senior: Hockey Legend cremated with full state honours

Avinash Sharma

Chandigarh, May 25: Legendary India hockey player and three-time Olympic gold-medallist Balbir Singh Senior's last rites were performed with full state honours in here on Monday (May 25). Singh, one of the greatest hockey players in independent India, was cremated by his maternal grandson Kabir Singh.

A police contingent fired three shots as a mark of respect to the departed soul. His body was taken to the crematorium in a bedecked vehicle. Senior officials of the Punjab government and Chandigarh administration laid wreaths on the body. Former Indian hockey captain Pargat Singh was also present at the funeral.

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Singh died at a hospital in Mohali on Monday after battling multiple health issues for over two weeks. The legendary centre-forward was 96 and is survived by his daughter Sushbir and three sons Kanwalbir, Karanbir, and Gurbir. His sons are settled in Canada and he lived here with his daughter and grandson Kabir.

"He died at 6:17 am this morning," Abhijit Singh, Director Fortis Hospital, Mohali, where he was admitted since May 8. Kabir later sent out a message stating, "Nanaji passed away this morning."

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The three-time Olympic gold medallist was in a semi-comatose state since May 18 and had developed a blood clot in his brain after being first admitted to the hospital for bronchial pneumonia with a high fever. He was tested for COVID-19 but reports came out negative. Singh suffered three cardiac arrests during the course of his treatment.

One of the country's most accomplished athletes, Singh was the only Indian among 16 legends chosen by the International Olympic Committee across modern Olympic history. His world record for most goals scored by an individual in the men's hockey final of the Olympics still remains unbeaten.

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He had scored five goals in India's 6-1 victory over the Netherlands in the gold medal match of the 1952 Helsinki Games. He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 1957. That was the first time an athlete was conferred the prestigious civilian honour. Singh's three Olympic gold medals came in London (1948), Helsinki (1952) as vice-captain, and Melbourne (1956) as captain.

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He was also the manager of India's only World Cup-winning side in 1975. It was the fourth time in the past two years that the former captain and coach was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). In January last year, Singh spent more than three months in hospital because of bronchial pneumonia.

Considered at par with Major Dhyan Chand in skills, Singh was among independent India's biggest hockey stars. Singh and Dhyan Chand never played together but are regarded as the jewels of Indian hockey, who inspired an entire generation of hockey players.

While Dhyan Chand garnered more recognition, especially since his achievements came under British rule, Singh's exploits were no less impactful. Born in 1924 in Punjab's Haripur Khalsa village, he was spotted by Harbail Singh, who was the then coach of Khalsa College and later coached India to back-to-back gold medals in 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Singh won three consecutive Olympic gold medals just like the more celebrated Dhyan Chand but lived a quieter life.

(With PTI inputs)

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