Charanjit Singh, hockey captain who won back Olympic gold for India, passes away

Captain of India’s 1964 Tokyo Olympics gold medal-winning hockey team, Charanjit Singh, 93, passed away on Thursday in Una, Himachal Pradesh, after suffering a heart attack. He had suffered from paralysis a few years ago.

“A captain who brought luck to the team, a calm yet authoritative player and above all a humble human being, that’s what my captain Charanjit Singh was and we would like the future generations to know about him,” an emotional Gurbux Singh, a member of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics team, said. Charanjit captaining the team to gold with a 1-0 win over Pakistan in Tokyo was significant because four years earlier India had suffered their first-ever loss in an Olympic final against the arch-rivals.

A BSC Agriculture degree holder from Government Agriculture College, Lyallpur in pre-partition Punjab, Charanjit started playing hockey in school. He would represent Panjab University and later Punjab Police. It was during his Punjab Police days that the centre-half would rub shoulders with Balbir Singh Senior, Udham Singh. He was first picked in the Indian team in 1958.

Charanjit was the first choice centre-half for the Rome Olympics. He would play a key role in feeding the ball to the likes of Ragbhir Bhola, Prithipal and Jaswant Singh. After India’s 1-0 win over Great Britain in the semifinal, he suffered a fracture in his leg and missed the final in which India lost to Pakistan. Charanjit would remain a regular member of the Indian team from 1958 to 1965, including 1962 Asian Games, where he missed the final again due to an injury.

Harbinder Singh, 79, who made his debut for India during the New Zealand tour in 1961, recalls his first impressions of the captain.

“There were senior players in the squad like Udham Singh, Prithipal Singh, Gurdev Singh, Darshan Singh and it was a two-month long tour. Charanjit would talk to all these senior players with ease. He would always make a point to call us and talk. During the tour, we would travel almost every day and Charanjit would lead the team in singing his favourite Mohammed Rafi song ‘Watan ki rah main watan ke naujawan shaheed ho’ from the movie Shaheed. The team won all the three tournaments he captained and he would always start this song in the team bus to motivate us all,” Harbinder said.

At Tokyo, India would score wins over Belgium, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada apart from a hard fought 1-1 draw against Germany and 1-1 draw against Spain in the pool stage. In the semifinal, India beat Australia 3-1. Most of the matches were played in rain and it was up to Charanjit to feed the forward line, including Harbinder, who scored five goals in the tournament.

“Despite rain, Charanjit made sure that the centre-line fed the ball to the forward-line and communicated well with the defence line too as the ball would sometimes slip,” Harbinder added. In the final against Pakistan, at one point the umpires had to stop the match and warn players about rough play. In a fast paced match, India found the winner through a penalty stroke conversion by Mohinder Lal. “Charanjit was very good in his own 25 m circle. He was not very flashy but a compact player and he showed that by countering Pakistani centre-forwards,” Gurbux added.

Charanjit served as Dean of student welfare at Punjab Agricultural University and Hisar Agricultural University before becoming a Director of Sports in the Himachal University.

Col Balbir Singh Kular, member of the 1968 Mexico Olympics bronze-medal winning team, remembers Charanjit as a compassionate human being. “As a captain, he knew how to respect players. When Pakistan’s four-time Olympian Brigadier Manzoor Hussian Atif was captured as a POW in 1971 war, Charanjit would often enquire about his well being from us. As a captain, he earned respect but he would also earn respect as a human being,” Kular said.

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