Thursday, June 13, 2024

Hockey legend Leslie Claudius passes away


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Kolkata: India’s triple Olympic gold medallist and one of the legends of the game of hockey, Leslie Claudius, passed away here on Thursday after a prolonged illness.

Claudius was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and frequently needed hospitalisation in the past couple of years.

He was 85 years old and is survived by his wife and three sons.

In an illustrious career, Claudius won three Olympic gold medals – London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956. At Rome in 1960, he led India to a silver-medal finish.

Claudius was being treated at the ICU of a local hospital for abnormal fluid retention.

“In fact his condition had got better yesterday and doctors were hopeful of discharging him. But today morning, it deteriorated,” his son Brandon said.

In the last 11 months, Claudius had been hospitalised four times due to ill-health.

Claudius was one of the five surviving members (Keshav Dutt, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput, and Balbir Singh Senior) of the 1948 squad that had won the gold in London when it hosted the Olympics 64 years ago.

One of the finest right-half and a former captain, Claudius was also part of next three editions of the quadrennial extravaganza that won two gold and one silver, a record only matched by compatriot Udham Singh.

In 1978, Claudius met with tragedy as he lost his younger son Robert, who also represented India in hockey at the 1978 World Cup, in a road accident.

Born in Bilaspur, Claudius was conferred with the prestigious Padmashree Award in 1971.

His dribbling as well as precision passing was a work of art and after India won gold medals at the London Olympics, The Times of London wrote, “Hockey is not worthwhile seeing if he is not playing.”

There is a famous anecdote about what the legendary Dhyan Chand, chairman of India’s hockey selection committee for the 1948 London Olympics said about Claudius.

Dhyan Chand would say, “Claudius selects himself, now I have to select the rest of the team.”

This year before the Olympics, London Transport brought out a special Olympic Legends Map detailing all the tube stations. The games organisers had renamed Bushey railway station after Claudius.

Hockey India condoled the death of the Claudius.

“We had the good fortune of being able to honour Leslie Claudius along with the other Golden Greats before the Olympic Games earlier this year. His death leaves a void that will be hard to fill,” HI President Mariamma Koshy stated.

Olympian Dhanraj Pillay described Leslie Claudius as the “God of Indian hockey” while the hockey fraternity mourned the death of three-time Olympic gold medallist.

“For me, he was the hockey God. It’s difficult to imagine Indian hockey without him. He was not only a fine player but what stood him apart was his good nature,” the former India captain and four-time Olympian said.

“He was a very good human being and always soft-spoken, a quality through which he was always approachable. He never had any arrogance and encouraged the youngsters,” the 44-year-old added.

Star of 1970’s and member of the World champion team Ashok Kumar recalled,”It was only a month ago, I visited Kolkata with other former Olympians. We went to see him at the hospital.

“He was full of energy. He had promised to take us to his club, Calcutta Customs, one evening. He was very hopeful of getting over the phase and he was responding well to the treatment as well.”

Claudius’s team mate at the 1948 Olympics, Keshav Dutt, fondly remembered their great on-field rivalry while pitted against each other for Calcutta Port Trust and Mohun Bagan and great camaraderie while donning national colours.

“I first met him before the Partition in Bombay… Later on, we went on to play together at the Calcutta Port Trust. I was there for one year and he had joined before me. He went on to become my rival when I joined Mohun Bagan. But we became good friends off the field, an association that lasted till his death.”

Dutt is shocked that just when there were reports of him recovering comes this shock.

“It’s really a shock news for me especially when the morning newspapers said he’s getting better.

“I wanted to meet him but when I called to inquire about his health this afternoon, I heard about the news. He was not only a very talented players but was always cheerful. I knew him for the longest period. It’s really a sad day for me.”

Another Olympic gold medallist, Gurbux Singh said,”After I came to Kolkata, I joined Customs in 1957, where I first had the chance to meet Leslie. I’m lucky enough to have played with him or against him at all levels.”

Gurbux recollected Claudius’ amazing ability to dribble past a number of players at will.

“A frail figure, he was not muscular built and quite an unassuming character. But my respect for him grew, the more I got to know about him. But one would be amazed to see his dribbling skills, agility on the field. He was a crowd puller and was regularly appreciated.”

Gurbux feels that Claudius used to get sad whenever he thought about the 1960 Rome Olympics final loss to Pakistan.

“The 1960 final loss to Pakistan was a sad moment. He was heartbroken having missed a fourth gold. We were unlucky. It was our first loss to Pakistan. He held all the important positions, right from being captain to coach and later selector.

“He always backed youngsters.”

In his tribute, football great PK Banerjee recalled the time spent with Claudius at the Rome Olympics where he was blessed by the Pope.

“He was blessed by the Pope himself at the Vatican during that time. He was chosen among six outstanding Catholics to be blessed by the Pope during that function. We had attended it. I still remember the special day,” he added.

Claudius had come to Delhi to send off London Olympics-bound Indian hockey contingent and captain Bharat Chetri fondly remembers his long chat with him.

“That was my first meeting with him. But he was very friendly as we discussed a lot about hockey. He was very emotional as we were going to the same place where India had won the gold in 1948,” Chetri said.

“The three gold medals and one silver that his team had won, seems so difficult to achieve now. It’s really a sad day for Indian hockey,” Chetri added. (PTI)


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