An Olympic gold that signified the birth of new India

The Indian team attacks the Spanish goalmouth during preliminary field hockey matches at Chiswick, during the Olympic Games, London, 6th August 1948. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Indian team attacks the Spanish goalmouth during preliminary field hockey matches at Chiswick, during the Olympic Games, London, 6th August 1948. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We will dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: the story of India's historic men's hockey gold medal win at the London 1948 Games. 

The background

India’s Olympic journey began in 1900 during which the men’s hockey team was already a personification of absolute dominance, having won three consecutive gold medals at Amsterdam 1928, Los Angeles 1932 and Berlin 1936 but London 1948 was their first Games as an independent nation.

India’s participation in the 1948 Olympics was deeply affected by its partition, which had taken a place less than a year ago. The subcontinent was divided into two nations – India and Pakistan – as a result many of the existing team’s players, right from Niaz Khan, Shah Rukh Muhammad and AS Dara – migrated across the newly drawn border.

Losing a large part of their squad that brought Olympic golds made reconstruction an uphill task for the Indian Hockey Federation. However, little did anyone know that generation of hockey players - that was going to be thrust onto the grandest stage of them all - would usher in a new and perhaps the most glorious era in the history of Indian sport.

Players, little known at the international level but prolific nationally, like Kishan Lal, who was named skipper, KD Singh Babu, Patrick Jansen, Leslie Claudius and Balbir Singh were included in the 20-man squad India fielded at London 1948. The much-debated inclusion of a Balbir Singh would go on to become the defining moment at the Games in hindsight.

The finals

A 20-man squad full of rookies and players with little Olympic experience landed on British soil to compete for independent India at the London 1948 Games. The Indian hockey team was drawn in Group A with Argentina, Austria and Spain while Pakistan was grouped with Netherlands, Belgium, France and Denmark.

The Indian team was off the blocks right from the start and thrashed Austria 8-0 in their opening game with Babu grabbing a brace and Patrick Jansen smashing a hat-trick. Their second game was against Argentina with India performing even better. They outclassed the South American nation 9-1 in a contest that made the world sit up and notice the world class talent of Singh, who put four past the Argentine goalkeeper.

In its final group game, India overcame Spain with an easy 2-0 win where Singh scored again. The semi-final against the Netherlands proved to be a difficult contest for India but they overcame their European opponent with a 2-1 victory to setup a clash against none other but Great Britain, who had defeated Pakistan in the other semi-final.

A daunting final against the hosts dawned upon India and it would need to overcome a Great Britain side competing on home soil and gunning for its third gold medal. A Wembley stadium filled with spectators was ready to witness a clash that would define the Indian team’s hockey future in the decades to come.

Singh, recollecting the final in August 2018, told Hindustan Times: “When we took the field in the final, the jam-packed stadium was rooting for their team, but as the match went on, impressed with our game, the crowd started cheering for us.”

The pitch at Wembley was slower than what India usually played with but they were equipped with studded boots that helped their cause. Making minor adjustments to the pace and tempo of their game, India got off to a flying start with who else but Singh scoring the opener before Jansen doubled the visitors’ lead in the first half.

Great Britain needed to get one back quickly in the second half to make a comeback but proceedings went quite the other way when Singh grabbed his second of the match to put the gold out of the home team’s reach. By the time Tarlochan Singh smashed the game’s fourth goal, they knew they had done the unthinkable – win India’s first Olympic gold - the first as an independent nation.

Balbir Singh, describing the moment to Hindustan Times, recalled in 2018:

“Though it happened 70 years ago, memories of the London Games are as fresh as it happened yesterday. That day when our flag was hoisted in front of thousands of Britons at the Wembley Stadium, I realised what independence means. It was the proudest moment for me and for all Indians back home. When the national anthem was played and the flag was going up, I felt that I was flying. I am short of words to describe that glorious moment.”

A year after gaining independence and going through partition, India had emerged from the pain and suffering to bring glory and joy to millions backs home.

The outcome

India's men's hockey team's triumph at London 1948 is still one of the most talked about moments in the nation’s sporting history because of its impact. The gold at the London 1948 saw India win gold at three out of the next four Olympics (1952, 1956 and 1964).

Many members of the team that won gold in London went on to become legends, especially Balbir Singh Sr., who is one of the greatest players the country has seen in its glorious history. Others including KD Singh Babu and Leslie Claudius also inspired many young hockey players for decades to come.

However, India has not managed to win an Olympic hockey medal since Moscow 1980, but hopes are high for them to change the status quo at Tokyo 2020.