He left, leaving people who knew him well with the memory of his famous smile, which won him admirers who wept at his departure after a prolonged illness. But a few young legs in the inside field of the velodrome in Helsinki sent across a different message — ‘Don’t mourn Balbir sir, celebrate him’, while he continues to bless them at the very venue where he created a world record in an Olympics hockey final.
In the final of the 1952 Games, Balbir Singh hammered five goals in India’s 6-1 victory over Holland. It’s a record that still stands and finds mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, for most goals by an individual in a men’s Olympic hockey final. Those close to the legend say he was very angry that day, as his team-mates didn’t pass him the ball at times when he was in the best position to score. But that’s a story for another day.
On June 1, when the Kapyla Sports Park in Helsinki re-opened following the coronavirus break, the first thing that the players of the Warriors Hockey Club did was bow in front of Balbir Singh’s images displayed at the entry of the stadium.
THE HELSINKI OLYMPICS
Helsinki had to wait for 12 long years from the day when it came very close to hosting the Olympics to be able to actually host the Games. In 1937, after Japan forfeited the 1940 Games, Helsinki started preparations to play hosts, as the city was runner-up to Japan in the final bidding stage. But World War II demolished any chance of the Olympics taking place.
The sports infrastructure that came up in Helsinki in the 1930s was finally put to use in 1952, when Helsinki became the smallest city to host the Olympics.
Among those sports buildings was the velodrome in the Kapyla Sports Park. Besides cycling, the inside field of the venue became the home of field hockey at the 1952 Games. From the natural grass surface in 1952, the field now has a multipurpose artificial surface that is suitable to play American football and lacrosse, besides hockey on.
FIELD HOCKEY IN FINLAND
In the modern era, Finland would be more synonymous with the Northern Lights, snow, ice hockey and, of course, the Santa Claus village Rovaniemi in Lapland. To somehow fit field hockey in that fold, the 1200-odd people of the Indian community in the Finnish capital have led the way.
A popular figure among the closely-connected Indian community in Vantaa and Helsinki is Bikramjit Singh, more popularly known as Vicky Moga — a former hockey player from Moga in Punjab.
Survivor of a life-threatening accident that left him bed-ridden, Vicky found his love for hockey too strong to not do anything about it, even in a country where the sport exists only on ice and in a totally different format.
That’s when the Warriors Hockey Club came to life.
“We founded this club in 2014. At that time, there was not much field hockey played here. I approached the Finland Hockey Association (FHA) as I wanted to do something for field hockey here. They asked ‘what could I do?’ I said that I can start by putting together a club. They agreed to give me a chance,” said Vicky, talking to Timesofindia.com.
Vicky then went all out to assist FHA in whatever way he could and is now a member of the association over the last five years. Besides being the coach and president of his club, Vicky is also an umpire and a technical official for tournaments.
“When I founded the club, there were just two clubs. Now there are more than 10. Two of our players have also represented Finland in the under-16 team,” he added.
“The kids of Indian families here used to play football at that time. I contacted their parents and convinced them for hockey. Today we have more than 60 players, who have origins from more than 20 different nations. Our under-14 and under-16 teams are doing very well, as we have been winning medals consistently, and our under-12 team won a gold medal (in an indoor hockey tournament) in 2017,” Vicky said with a sense of pride.
‘TO TRAIN ON A HISTORIC GROUND IS OUR GOOD FORTUNE’
The inside field of the velodrome could be seen having marking lines different to that on a hockey field. That’s because the more popular American football is also played here, along with lacrosse. The turf is a little softer than the one prescribed for a hockey field but that’s the requirement for the ground’s multi-purpose nature.
But you may not find a hockey player who won’t be willing to sacrifice that much to train on a soil laden with Indian hockey history.
The 1952 gold was India’s fifth consecutive yellow metal in Olympic hockey, and second in a row as an independent nation, when Balbir Singh Sr. led the team as India’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
“Call it our luck or good fortune, we train at a ground where hockey was played during the 1952 Olympics,” said Vicky as the young players jogged behind him. “The most inspirational thing about it is that in the tournament Balbir Singh Sr made a world record that’s still unbroken — he scored five goals in the final against Holland.”
It was perhaps with Balbir Singh’s blessing and definitely due to the inspiration the players drew from him that in 2017, the under-12 team of the club went on to become the champions of FHA’s Indoor Hockey League.
Winning five of their six matches in the four-team league, the Warriors had clinched the title, finishing top of the table with 15 points. Vicky’s son, Arjunjit, was also a member of that team.
A TEAM OF LEGENDS
Helsinki is called Balbir Singh’s Olympics as he scored nine of the 13 goals India scored in the tournament, including a staggering five in the final.
But in a team game, it’s criminal to not credit the team as a whole, and the Indian squad of 1952 had other legends as well, who would walk into a ‘Hall of Fame’ any day.
Leading the team was KD Singh ‘Babu’ (two Olympic gold medals), with the likes of Leslie Claudius (3 gold medals, 1 silver), Udham Singh (3 gold medals, 1 silver) and Keshav Dutt (2 gold medals), along with Balbir Singh to complete a formidable outfit.
To play on the same soil as those heroes is nothing short of a blessing, and the Warriors Hockey Club is counting on that.