One of the greatest Sikh hockey players ever, Avtar Singh Sohal ‘Tari’ has not even once played for India. But he was at Rio with Sachin Tendulkar at his side, lustily cheering the Indian Hockey team at the games when they got on to the field to play their first match against Ireland. Who is this Sikh gentleman and what do we know about him? The author tells us all about this hockey icon, and his achievements. Read on…
Even at the age of 77, he is absolutely hale and hearty, fit and agile. Sitting alongside master blaster Sachin Tendulkar, he was cheering the Indians when they trooped onto the turf at Rio … they were to face the Irish in this first match of theirs at the games. The handsome Sikh, Avtar Singh Sohal ‘Tari’, is most arguably the greatest ever Sikh Olympian who has never played for India. He is popularly known as ‘Tari’ in the world hockey circuit.
A sports veteran and ace who has been involved in hockey for all his life, Avtar can boast of 4 Olympic Games appearances as a player. His stand-out performance saw him get a mention in the 1984 Guinness World Book of Records – as having the most International appearances at that time. He had, by then, represented his adopted country Kenya 167 times between the years 1957 and 1972. Noted hockey commentator and sports writer Jasdev Singh says, “It is a phenomenal record that a player led his country three times as the captain in the Olympic Games and played altogether 4 times in Olympic hockey. Avtar was an out-of-the-world player and his record most unlikely will remain unbroken,” he avers.
During his recent visit to India, Avtar was reminiscing about the 1971 Barcelona World Cup Hockey semi-finals between India and Kenya. It was a tense match, India was down 0-1 at half-time especially thanks to a goal from him. “We were in the threshold of knocking India out to clinch the bronze in the first World Cup hockey championship, but fate deemed otherwise. As it happened, India’s fortunes turned with them scoring two goals in the final moments”, he recalls.
Avtar was first appointed the captain of the National hockey team of Kenya in the year 1962, for a Test series against Pakistan – a role he sustained for 10 long years when Kenya was ranked among the best teams in the world. He was selected for the 1960 Olympics for the first time, as fullback. He captained Kenya at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972), and was also the captain at the First World Cup in Barcelona in 1971.
This time at Rio, even though the Kenyan team was not present for the Olympic Games, Avtar was there as an observer of FIH. “I used to cheer the Indian side as and when they played against any others apart from Kenya. I am as much emotionally attached to India as any of you … my parents apropos came from Jalandhar – and India – India is also ‘Guru Ghar’,” says Avtar, his voice choking with emotion while talking to the author.
How did Avtar take to hockey? To this question, he answers: “I still remember when the Indian hockey team came to our Kenya in 1948 under the captainship of Dhayan Chand. Those were exciting times. It had several other stalwarts. After watching the magic Dhayan Chand wreaked in a match, I developed a very keen interest in hockey. His dribbling and dodging were really out-of-this-world. My father too encouraged me to play hockey. Prior to that, I used to play Cricket in school,” shares Avtar.
Talking about the contribution of Sikhs in Kenyan sports, Avtar says. “It was the people from India, especially Sikhs, who in fact introduced the game of hockey in Kenya. Mahan Singh was elected the president of the Kenya Hockey Union in 1957. He was the life and soul of our hockey. The backbone of the Kenya National Team for long has been the Sikh Union Club Nairobi. The Club, which originally started as Khalsa Union in 1920, became the Sikh Union in 1926. It has fielded a large majority of our players in the National team and has won most of domestic trophies in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.”
Avtar adds that Sikhs have represented Kenya at the Olympics, World Cups, East African Championships and the Africa Cup of Nations: “I cannot think of life without hockey. After I retired from playing, I made a new beginning with my coaching career and was Kenyan National Coach from 1978 to 1988, coaching them at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I also took up umpiring and was awarded an FIH International Umpires’ badge in 1980. I was a judge at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was appointed to the FIH Development and Coaching Committee in 1988.”
Former Indian hockey captain Harbinder Singh, talking about Avtar Singh Sohal Tari, says: “I have yet to find someone who has excelled both as a player, and a coach. Avtar’s commitment to the game is simply matchless.”
And this truly ‘Olympic Icon’ still starts trembling when he recalls the gory incident that happened so close to him in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Tears come to his eyes as he recalls those tense moments when athletes killed in the attack were taken to hospital.
A deeply religious man, Avtar was recently in India with his wife Ripudaman Kaur and some friends from Kenya for offering Sewa at the Reetha Sahib Gurdwara in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Says Avtar, “It was such an honour to be there at the Gurudwara Sahib. We even have Kenya block there in it, with 33 rooms. It is my life-long desire to serve there as often and as frequently as possible.”