'For us, it was gold or nothing,' says hockey legend Harbinder Singh
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'For us, it was gold or nothing,' says hockey legend Harbinder Singh

On the first day of the Rio Olympics, City Spidey time travels with the veteran player to October 23, 1964, to relive India’s glorious victory against Pakistan in the men’s hockey final.

'For us, it was gold or nothing,' says hockey legend Harbinder Singh

It was October 23, 1964. The stadium for men’s hockey final was jam-packed. Two hockey giants from Asia at the time, India and Pakistan, were ready to lock horns at the Tokyo Olympics. It was a war of sorts. India-Pakistan relations had become strained and a rough match was on the cards. And it turned out to be one of the greatest too!

City Spidey brings to you glimpses of the golden moments at Tokyo 1964 in a free-wheeling chat with Arjuna Award recipient and Olympic gold medalist Sardar Harbinder Singh.

The start was rough — and 10 minutes into the game, the umpires lined up both the teams and flashed red cards. After that, the match proceeded more or less decently. Soon after half time, a 21-year-old Singh took the ball from his centre-forward position and entered the D, passing on the ball to his fellow players. Suddenly, owing to a foul by the Pakistani team, India got a penalty corner.

Singh, now 73, plunges into details: “We were determined to convert this chance. Prithipal Singh took the hit and the goalkeeper was completely beaten. But as the ball was reaching the post, it hit the leg of Pakistani captain Manzoor Hussain Atif, and we got a penalty stroke. Our penalty stroke specialist at the time was Mohinder Lal. He took the stroke, and we scored! That was the final score and we won the match by 1-0. It is hard for me to explain the atmosphere after our win. The whole world was celebrating our victory. We had been able to retrieve our lost glory in hockey.”

He adds, “Would you believe me if I said something? The night before the finals, Mohinder had predicted a penalty stroke. He had said he would hit it as high as possible, as the Pakistani goalkeeper was short, and he would not be able to stop it. And that’s exactly what happened!”


A snapshot from the time the Indian hockey team was invited to a Tokyo school to interact with children


India could sustain the lead till the very end because of some great goalkeeping by Shankar Laxman. “After the goal, Pakistan received a series of penalty corners, and Laxman defended all the strikes. He saved three consecutive rebounds taken by the legendary Pakistani player Munir Dar.”

Singh scored five goals out of the 22 by India in that year's Olympics. As the youngest in the team, it was a great success for him, and he went on to serve the national team both as a player and as a mentor.

There are other fond vignettes too. Indian players were, for the first time, given track suits and tracks. They were used to playing either barefoot or in leather boots, which would become heavy during the rains. Flashing a smile, Singh  says, “I got a track suit and a stud shoe from Adidas, and I used them for all my Olympic matches — in 1964, 1968 and 1972. It was a fine feeling — wearing a track suit and a stud that worked well under all conditions.”

By now, the sardars of the Indian contingent had become extremely popular in Tokyo. “We were stars. They wanted to know about us. We were invited to a school to interact with the children; we were called for TV interviews. And we were all enjoying our newfound fame,” says Singh with a shy smile.    


Sardar Harbinder Singh shows me his medals. The bronze is just as important as the gold, he tells me


When the Indian team reached Delhi airport, there was a huge crowd — even at midnight — to receive the players. The same Air India flight was also to take a squad of US players, and Singh remembers one singular comment from one of the American players. “After seeing such a huge crowd even at midnight, one of them said: ‘You win one gold and such a huge crowd comes to receive you guys, we win hundreds, still nobody comes,’” he recalls.

Singh is now a member of the selection committee of the Indian hockey team, and hopes that the country will someday regain its name among the greats. Sharing his album of paper clippings and black-and-white photos of the team with me, he says in a voice tinged with sadness, “Though we won two bronze medals after Tokyo, we never considered them real wins. For us, it was gold, or nothing. But I know now how important even that bronze is for us today.”