Revisiting India hockey's record-breaking run at the 1956 Olympics on its diamond jubilee
India’s Rio campaign ended the same way it started – in heartbreak. After over a couple of weeks of action at the 31st edition of the Olympic Games, India came back with just 2 medals – a silver in badminton and a bronze in wrestling. The two medalists, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, have etched their names in the history books. But, where does their medal-winning effort rank in the greatest achievements in Indian Olympics history?
From Leander Paes’ bronze in 1996 to Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in 2008, there have been plenty of joys for India at the Olympics in individual sports. Although team events haven’t fetched us a medal since 1980, it is the Indian men’s hockey team that, in my opinion, brought India her greatest achievement in sporting history.
Winning a medal at the Olympics and etching their name in the history books is what every sportsperson aspires to do when they are growing up. Creating records on the way serves as icing on the cake. However, going through the history pages reminds us of one special performance which has stood the test of time. In 1956, exactly 60 years ago, the Indian men's hockey team created an unassailable record, which still stands strong.
RECORD: Winning the Olympic gold medal without conceding a single goal
On the diamond jubilee of the record, let's take a glimpse of one of the most iconic team performances in the history of, not just Indian but, world sport. The Indian men's hockey team were gunning for their third successful gold medal after independence from British rule. Having taken the top spot at the 1948 and the 1952 Games, the team arrived in Melbourne as firm favourites. They not only completed the hat-trick of gold medals of independent India (6th successive overall) but also set a benchmark for future teams.
The team, led by India's flag bearer at the Games, Balbir Singh Sr., and coached by Sardar Harbail Singh were rampant en route to the gold medal, smashing 38 goals while conceding ZERO in 5 matches – an enviable record that is yet to be broken (or even matched, for that matter).
India's 6th consecutive gold medal in men's hockey at the Olympics, however, didn't come without its share of struggles. The team's captain Balbir Singh Sr. had suffered a fracture in his favoured right hand during the tournament, but the then 2-time Olympic gold medallist set an example by playing through the pain barrier and in the process, notched up his 3rd gold and India's only medal at the 1956 Olympics at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
'Attack wins you matches, but defence wins you titles.'
No other quote could sum up the performance of the Indian team better. India advanced to the semi-finals in style, romping home to 6-0, 14-0 and 16-0 wins over Singapore, Afghanistan and the United States of America, respectively, in the group stage. With their goal-scoring machine in the form of captain Balbir Sr. Playing through injury, it was their defence that came to the fore. The coveted gold would have been out of India's hands if the team's defence didn't stand up in narrow 1-0 wins over Germany and Pakistan in the semis and finals.
Nothing can get better than beating your arch rivals in the final to win the top spot while creating an insurmountable record. And India did just that after Randhir Singh Gentle scored the only goal of the final in the 38th minute against Pakistan. This win gains more significance as it was the first-ever meeting between the two arch-rivals at the Olympics. These two teams would contest in the finals of the next two Olympics as well with Pakistan winning the 1960 edition and India regaining their title back in 1964 in Tokyo.
The 1956 Olympics was also part of the historic 30-match winning run by India from 1928 to 1960. This winning streak is the longest ever in the history of the sport at the Olympics and no words can overstate the importance of the 1956 Olympics campaign to this particular record.
On the diamond jubilee of possibly the most enviable record in Olympics history by a team, let's take a moment to remember the legends – the members of the Indian men's hockey team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia:
- Leslie Claudius
- Ranganathan Francis
- Haripal Kaushik
- Amir Kumar
- Raghbir Lal
- Shankar Lakshman
- Govind Perumal
- Amit Singh Bakshi
- Raghbir Singh Bhola
- Balbir Singh Sr. (C)
- Hardyal Singh Garchey
- Randhir Singh Gentle
- Balkishan Singh Grewal
- Gurdev Singh Kullar
- Udham Singh Kullar
- Bakshish Singh
- Charles Stephen
Coach: Sardar Harbail Singh
Manager: Air Commander O.P. Mehra
Take a bow, gentlemen! We, the people of India, salute you!