When Hockey Stars Played For Garlands

Balbir Singh Dosanjh. (Photo Credit: Suprita Das)

Balbir Singh Dosanjh. (Photo Credit: Suprita Das)

It may’ve been 70 years since that day, but Balbir Singh Dosanjh remembers every little detail of India’s hockey campaign at the 1948 Olympics.

Suprita Das
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It may’ve been 70 years since that day, but Balbir Singh Dosanjh remembers every little detail of India’s hockey campaign at the 1948 Olympics. It was independent India’s first Olympic Games, and the team beat Great Britain 4-0 in the final. Irrespective of how the Akshay Kumar starrer ‘Gold’, based on that Olympic campaign, does at the box office, to hear the story from one of the real life heroes of the tournament himself, is an experience that’s bound to give you goosebumps.

Dosanjh is 94 now. He struggles to hear everything being told to him at the first go. The number of times his wrinkled hands don’t tremble these days are few. Yet, he’s the first one to stand in attention, with his head held high, as he watches the Indian flag go up and the national anthem is played in the background. The hockey legend, who won Olympic golds at the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Games for India was attending the launch of the Inspire Institute of Sports, the country’s first privately funded High Performance Training Centre in Vijaynagar, Karnataka. While having a look at the facilities at the campus, Dosanjh decided to give the treadmill a shot. “It was very fast!” he laughs. “But in our times we could run fast even without all this.”

His voice fills with pride each time the 1948 London Olympics is mentioned. It’s a story he isn’t tired of narrating in great detail. “Wembley Stadium,” he says. “Please don’t think I am only praising myself, but I scored the first goal in the final against Great Britain. In the 7th minute.” The audience can’t help but laugh. “Second goal, sorry, but that was also mine. In the 15th minute,” he continues. India beat the hosts 4-0 eventually. “That day, as our flag, independent India’s flag went up in the land of those who ruled us for so many years, I felt like I was soaring too,” he says. “In the second half, some British fans started cheering for us too, they kept saying ‘Come on, we want half a dozen goals!” The modulation in his voice truly makes it sound like it all happened yesterday.

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Dosanjh’s shirt number was 13. And not many missed the opportunity to say that it would be an unlucky campaign for India. In the final, he scored five of India’s six goals, as they thrashed the Netherlands 6-1 to defend their title successfully.

It was a team full of stars, and India were the kings of world hockey at the time. But the struggles, due to financial constraints mainly, were an equally important part of their journey. “There was no money,” Dosanjh says. “We played for the garlands that people put around our necks when we returned to India. When the flowers dried up, the thread still remained. I used to keep them with me. Some English players wanted to meet me once in Chandigarh and thought I was very rich because I was an Olympic medallist. But all I had to show was my medals and those threads from the garlands.”

Dosanjh hopes the movie on the 1948 Olympic campaign acts as a boost for the Indian team that will play the World Cup at home later this year, in Bhubaneswar.

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