"It was in London where it all began for me. Now everything is over at the same place. It can't get worse. Our hockey is dead." Those were, if my inconsolable mind serves me right, probably the last legendary words on the sport Leslie Walter Claudius made his own - for 85 years - until he breathed for the final time on December 20, 2012.
The last I saw India's triple Olympic gold-medallist was with an arm around Bharat Chhetri, India captain for the 2012 London Olympics, who helped him off the dais at the team's send-off ceremony. The midfielder who zipped past defenders and cut attacks in half with neat tackles was barely able to walk. "Do us proud," were the only words I could hear as Chhetri helped him to his chair in the front row that day.
Claudius wasn't keeping well since the beginning of 2012. And when the promised smiles didn't emerge from the London Games, he lost hope and with it, perhaps, the strength to fight. Living in a rented accommodation in Kolkata, the legend survived on his custom officer's pension. Taking note of his medical needs, the Indian government came forward to foot the bills his liver cirrhosis refused to stop generating, before taking the phenomenon away from us - irretrievably.
He was occasionally seen waving a taxi for a ride to the Calcutta Customs Tent, but not since the last six months, when he was mostly confined to bed. Wonder if those taxi drivers knew that on the backseat was an Olympic gold medallist from London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956, and a Guinness record-holder for the maximum number of Olympic medals (three gold and one silver in Rome 1960) in hockey. But Claudius was not the kind who beat their chest. Rather he would have leaned back and imagined the drive as a forward weaving his way past traffic of defenders.
The 1971 Padma Shri award winner also went through a couple of heart-wrenching moments, especially when he lost Robert, one of his fours sons. Robert, who also represented India at the 1978 World Cup in Mexico, died in a road accident. The other equally tragic story unfolded when all of his Olympic medals were stolen from his house and were never retrieved. Nothing worse can happen to a father and a sportsperson. Claudius endured it all, with the same steely resolve that his game always promised and delivered, until nature took its course.
Claudius, Anglo-India by descent, is survived by his three sons and four other members (Keshav Dutt, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput and Balbir Singh Senior) of the 1948 team. "Oh, those were the days; we played with heart. With KD Singh [Babu] we had the best team in 1952 at Helsinki. We were invincible," he reminisced some time back.
But off the field, nothing's invincible. Life takes it course, as it did today. RIP, sir.
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