Vancouver writer's Olympian tale of Balbir Singh Sr. reflects the history of modern India
A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi's New India
By Patrick Blennerhassett. Now or Never Publishing, 339 pages, softcover
The Olympic Games create heroes for the ages. There's the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, who's still celebrated in Helsinki as the greatest middle- and long-distance runner of the early 20th century. He's even been pictured on Finland's currency.
A two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, Abibe Bikila, has a stadium named after him in Addis Ababa more than 40 years after his death. He's most famous for winning his race in Rome in 1960 while running barefoot.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, U.S. swimming legend Michael Phelps has received lavish media attention after winning his 19th Olympic gold medal.
However, India's greatest Olympic athlete, 92-year-old retired field hockey star Balbir Singh Sr., remains largely forgotten after capturing gold at the 1948, 1952, and 1956 Olympics. He's known as Singh Sr. to distinguish himself from many other field hockey players named Balbir Singh.
How Singh Sr. ended up being overlooked by his nation is the subject of a fascinating biography by Vancouver journalist Patrick Blennerhassett.
Written in a lively style, A Forgotten Legend details Singh Sr.'s stunning Olympic exploits with play-by-play precision. At the London Olympics in 1948, he scored six goals in a match against Argentina, which was an unprecedented performance. He followed up with two goals in the final against Britain, helping bring home the gold in a 4-0 victory.
Then there were his three goals in a 3-1 semi-final win against Britain in the 1952 Helsinki Games. That was topped by five goals in a 6-1 gold-medal win over the Netherlands. It was a performance that remains unmatched in Olympic field hockey to this day.
In his opening game in the 1956 Olympics, Singh Sr. potted another five goals. But an injury kept him out of the tournament until the final contest, when his team posted a 1-0 win over Pakistan for the gold.
Behind the scenes, there was constant jockeying for positions on the national field hockey team, with sports bureaucrats sometimes limiting the number of Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims for questionable reasons.
Blennerhassett's book also chronicles this gentle man's dignified response to various humiliations dealt his way by the Indian field hockey establishment after his career ended. It's part of a broader narrative exploring the rise of Hindu communalism in India in the decades following its independence in 1947.
The tone is set right from the start as the author quotes a speech that U.S. president Barack Obama delivered in New Delhi. Obama talked about how everyone has the right to practise their faith free from discrimination, but noted that religion has often "been used to tap into those darker impulses".
It's a story that Indians know all too well.
Singh Sr., the son of an Indian nationalist, rose to prominence as a field hockey player during tumultuous times. His first Olympics came not long after the country had broken its colonial bond with Britain, experienced the horrors of Partition, and endured the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi by a Hindu extremist.
In his playing heyday, Singh Sr. was honoured by the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of Indian secularism.
Much later, readers discover that Singh Sr., a turbaned Sikh, witnessed barbaric violence from a vehicle driving through Delhi as Hindu mobs went on a rampage against Sikhs in October 1984. This followed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
Singh Sr., the country's greatest field hockey player in history, had to remain hidden or else he, too, would have been slaughtered simply on the basis of his faith.
Meanwhile, an Indian field hockey player from an earlier era, Dhyan Chand, continues to be lionized within the country for winning Olympic three gold medals while playing for Great Britain. And Blennerhassett documents how this Hindu forward's goal-scoring statistics were inflated to ensure that he remained the greatest in the minds of most Indians. The author also reports that Chand's birthday, August 29, is National Sports Day in India, further testimony to his beloved stature.
In contrast, Singh Sr. lives in obscurity in the northwestern state of Punjab, save for the occasional recognition, such as at an Olympic Museum gathering in London in 2012.
Indian politicians like to think that they govern the worldest largest democracy. And the country's constitution embraces secularism, thanks to the efforts of Nehru and antidiscrimination activist and former cabinet minister B.R. Ambedkar. But after reading A Forgotten Legend, it's easy to conclude that religious communalism and anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim bigotry remain stronger than ever.
Fans of sports biographies will likely love this book, which is rich in details not only about Singh Sr.'s accomplishments, but also about day-to-day life in India. A Forgotten Legend will also appeal to people keenly interested in the evolution of modern India, including those who might have enjoyed Ramachandra Guha's landmark book, India After Gandhi.
That's because in many respects, Singh Sr.'s life story is a microcosm of the history of the Indian republic.